A new treatment for malaria - which experts say kills a child in Africa every 30 seconds - might lie in the dregs of medicinal tea formerly produced by an Ellicott City woman's company.
Bad flavor might have undermined the lasting success of Diane Winn's first anti-malarial drug, a product called Phyto-Laria tea bags, which her company made until five years ago from the root of an African vine.
But now, the only thing Winn hopes to taste is success as a flavorless capsule form of the same drug soon heads for clinical testing and, if approved, a product launch by year's end.
Not bad for someone who graduated in 1959 with a degree in biology from tiny Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pa., and who envisioned a long career behind a microscope or as a medical illustrator.
Winn said she didn't foresee her life of accomplishment and adventure in Ghana - befriending African leaders and villagers alike while striving to make important contributions to world health for nearly 50 years.
"I have been blessed to lead this amazing life, but the credit for these pharmaceutical advancements must be shared by many people," said Winn, 72, whose company hopes to have a reformulated drug on the market by the end of 2010.
A question of taste
The problem with the acrid tea made from the root of the nibima plant was that some patients refused to sip their way through a complete course of it, said Winn, who has traveled to the West African country more than a hundred times over the decades.
"The tea bags were an easy way to administer the drug, and its bitterness was not something we thought would matter," she explained.
But like any medicine, failure to finish the prescribed amount can cause relapse or worse, she said, and so the search was on to find a better way to ensure patient compliance.
Phytica, a second company co-founded by Winn in 2006, has been working to resolve the taste issue under a public-private partnership with Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research in Ghana. Researchers recently hit upon the idea of putting the effective plant extract into capsules to avoid the offensive flavor issue altogether.
Patients taking the Larax brand capsules will be rid of life-threatening parasites in about 3 1/2 days without adverse side effects, the same as when drinking the tea, Winn said. Even the highest fevers that accompany malaria will be reduced within 24 hours, she added.
"This has proved to be just an amazing drug," said Winn, who noted her company is also working on plant-based medicines for asthma and malnutrition, among others illnesses and conditions. Phytica's mission is "to advance global health while building sustainable businesses, employing Africans in farming, production and management, and raising Africa's standard of living," according to the company's Web site.
After clinical trials and approval by the Ghana Food and Drugs Board, Larax is slated to begin production in Ghana, which will create a need for local residents to grow nibima and to assist in manufacturing and sales, injecting millions of dollars into the country's economy, Winn said.
Africa incurs a $12 billion shortfall every year in its gross domestic product as a result of malaria, $760 million of that lost in Ghana alone, according to Phytica's Web site.
The war on malaria
Malaria is transmitted through the bite of a female mosquito infected with the Plasmodium parasite and every bite can mean contracting another case of the potentially fatal disease, explained Winn.
Each year 350 million to 500 million cases of malaria occur worldwide and more than a million people die, most of them young African children living south of the Sahara, according to the Web site of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The World Health Organization reports that one in every five childhood deaths in Africa is because of the effects of the disease and that an average African child contracts between 1.6 and 5.4 episodes of malaria fever each year.
Winn acknowledged that research is being conducted on anti-malarial medicines by other companies, some of it centered on creating a vaccine and funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
"A vaccine will be the ultimate solution," Winn said. "But there will always be a market for a locally produced, anti-malarial drug."
A life-changing invitation
Winn first traveled to Ghana in 1962 on a whim, agreeing to accompany a team of 20 fellow workers from the National Institutes of Health without even knowing where the country was. She was 25.
The medical research team had been sent by President John F. Kennedy at the request of then-Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah, she said, noting that Kennedy had just one year earlier sent Peace Corps volunteers to Ghana on that organization's first-ever assignment.
"When I first arrived I felt at home immediately - the people of Ghana are so outgoing and so friendly," said Winn. "Being there was the first time in my life that I felt comfortable in my own skin."