Israeli startup turns mother’s herbal remedy into a diabetes treatment

For Israeli Bedouin Dr. Sobhi Sauob, it was only natural to turn to his mother when he decided to start developing a new herbal remedy to help diabetics. Brought up in the Tavor area in the Galilee, Sauob’s mother had …

For Israeli Bedouin Dr. Sobhi Sauob, it was only natural to turn to his mother when he decided to start developing a new herbal remedy to help diabetics.

Brought up in the Tavor area in the Galilee, Sauob’s mother had always relied on medicines made from local plants and herbs found growing in nearby fields when her family was sick. The remedies, which treated anything from headaches to high blood pressure had been handed down through the Bedouin tribe for generations, and were tried and trusted. Sauob decided to combine his mother’s folk wisdom with his expertise in biomedical engineering, to try to create and commercialize a new herbal treatment that would reduce glucose levels in the blood.

More than three years on, Sauob’s goal was achieved. Sadly, Sauob, died of stomach cancer in July 2004, and did not live to see his dream succeed – but it lived on after his passing. In May, the company he founded, D-Herb, announced that it had successfully completed clinical trials on its new herbal diabetes remedy. The double blind, placebo-controlled trial was held on 67 people at the diabetes clinic of the Wolfson Medical Center under the supervision of Dr. Julio Wainstein, director of the Wolfson clinic and vice president of the Israel Diabetes Association.

The results of the trial showed that the patented extract helps patients in two areas. First, it significantly lowers glucose absorption in the GI tract, preventing excess glucose from entering the blood steam; and secondly, it assists metabolized glucose to enter the cells – a critical function for diabetics. Both of these actions reduce glucose levels in the bloodstream and together may contribute to stabilizing glucose levels in the blood of diabetes type 2 patients.

By the end of this year, the D-Herb extract should be on sale in the United States, where diabetes is a rapidly growing problem.

Recent figures suggest that up to 18 million Americans suffer from diabetes, a figure that is growing by 10 percent every year. Of these, the majority suffer from type 2 diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA). A further 2,200 new cases are diagnosed each day.

Diabetes is also a rapidly growing problem in rest the western world. In developed countries it is the fourth leading cause of death. Currently some 200 million people worldwide suffer from diabetes, and the International Diabetes Federation estimates that this figure will rise to 333 million by the year 2025.

Type 2 diabetes, which was recently described as an ‘emerging epidemic’ by the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, occurs when the pancreas either fails to produce sufficient amounts of insulin, or cannot effectively use the insulin that it does produce. Insulin is a hormone that helps the body’s cells use glucose for energy. If glucose cannot be absorbed by the cells, it builds up in the bloodstream and causes high blood sugar. Uncontrolled diabetes can lead to long-term health problems including blindness, kidney disease, skin disorders, and nerve damage. It also carries an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.

Type 2 diabetes is exacerbated by lack of exercise and obesity, both of which are increasing in the US. Before patients develop full-blown diabetes, many suffer impaired glucose intolerance. Another 18 million Americans are thought to be suffering from this condition and while many remain unaware of their health problems, others are already trying a combination of good nutrition, exercise and various medicines and remedies to try to control the progress of the disease.

It is this market that D-Herb hopes to attract.

“The unique feature of the supplement is that it helps diabetes patients in various stages of the condition, including those who were recently diagnosed and have no treatment history,” Jan Van Mill, the CEO of D-Herb told ISRAEL21c.

“Many products now on the market lose their effectiveness after 12-18 months as the disease progresses, and patients have to look for new treatments. It’s not unusual for diabetic patients to use two or three products at the same time to keep their glucose levels steady.”

The D-Herb remedy, which comes in capsule form, is based on the plant purslane, or hilbe as it is known in Israel. The plant is often used in Arabic cooking. Suaob began working on the extract in November 2002, when he founded D-Herb at the New Generation Technology (NGT) incubator in Nazareth.

NGT was set up in 2000 by Arab and Jewish entrepreneurs in a bid to encourage Jewish-Arab start-ups. D-Herb was the first project to be accepted to the incubator, and in the last three and a half years it has raised some $900,000 in funds, most of it from the Office of the Chief Scientist.

Right from the start, D-Herb decided to take all remedies it developed to thorough clinical trials. Patients undergoing the Wolfson trials were given a range of blood tests, including Haemoglobin A1c, to discover what impact the extract was having. Haemoglobin A1c, is one of the most reliable tests diabetics can take, as it will show not only what current blood glucose levels are, but also show whether they have shown any spikes or falls in the previous months. The results of these tests were all good.

“This was very encouraging,” says Van Mil. “The tests showed the product has a real effect. It’s not a momentary reduction in glucose, but a long-term improvement in the condition of patients taking the product. It shows our product may be effective in long term treatment of diabetic patients and may even prevent deterioration of people in the pre-diabetes or early stage diabetes.”

The tests also showed that patients did not suffer any side effects, unlike some other diabetic remedies on the market today, according to Van Mil.

One purpose of this testing is to make D-Herb’s remedy stand out from others in the marketplace. According to Van Mil, many of the existing herbal remedies on the market aimed at diabetics, including ginseng, fenugreek seeds, stevia, bilberry, and jambul, have not gone through any clinical trials, while others have not been tested rigorously. At most many have only gone through trials that prove they are not toxic. Some have not even gone through those.

In 2000, the FDA recalled five Chinese herbal products after discovering that they contained a prescription diabetes drug called phenformin, which was withdrawn from the US market 20 years ago after it caused serious side effects and several deaths. As a result, the FDA tends to steer people away from herbal remedies simply because regulation of herbs is not as good and some have unlisted ingredients that can be dangerous.

“It was very important to us that we carry out proper clinical trials,” says Van Mil. “We want to demonstrate that this product has a significant impact on humans and can be used as a treatment.”

The second reason is that D-Herb’s long-term goal is to turn its herbal remedies into pharmaceutical drugs. The company has already begun obtaining the necessary scientific data for the diabetes extract and has begun isolating, purifying and identifying its active ingredients as a first step towards pharmaceutical development. A number of molecules of biological importance have already been isolated, including C-18, an omega-3 fatty acid.

With this in mind, D-Herb set up a scientific advisory board at the start of operations. The board includes three of Israel’s top doctors in the field of diabetics – Dr. Itamar Raz, chairman of the Israel Diabetes Association (IDA) and a professor at Hadassah Medical School; Wainstein; and Dr. Naim Shehadeh, director of the juvenile diabetes department at Rambam.

To fund this new development stage, D-Herb is now hoping to raise a further $1.5 million from investors. In the meantime, D-Herb is just about to sign an exclusive marketing agreement with a large Israeli company that will start manufacturing the new herbal remedy for diabetics. The company, which has not yet been named, plans to start marketing the product in the US and worldwide by the end of this year, and in the spring of next year. Royalties will go to D-Herb.

D-Herb is also exploring other potential remedies. There are many herbs and plants used in the folk medicine culture of the Galilee, and D-Herb plans to evaluate and develop the most promising prospects.

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About Nicky Blackburn

Editor and Israel Director, Nicky Blackburn has worked extensively as a journalist and editor both in Britain and Israel for a range of national and international publications including The Cambridge Evening News, London News, Travel Weekly, Israel High Tech Investor, and The Times of London. She was the Associate Editor at LINK Israel’s Business and Technology Magazine, and the High-Tech Correspondent for The Jerusalem Post.