Jasmonate, a chemical compound found in Jasmine, could form the basis of an attractive complementary drug to existing cancer therapies.Jasmine is a flower whose name in Persian means “gift from God.” Native to the Old World, its alluring smell is strong, intoxicating and often seductive. People in the Middle East use it as a folk remedy to treat coughs, sore throats and bronchitis.

Inside jasmine is a plant stress hormone called jasmonate, which protects the plant against injury. This compound has been isolated throughout the plant kingdom, and a new Israeli company Sepal is hoping to use jasmonate’s unique chemical properties to make cancer drugs more effective. Phase II clinical trials with a Sepal compound on leukemia patients are planned to begin in France in a few months.

The company also believes that jasmonate could be used one day as a new stand-alone anti-cancer drug.

Sepal, which is named after the part of the flower that surrounds and protects the flower in bud, was founded to commercialize jasmonate research carried out by Prof. Eliezer Flescher in his lab at Tel Aviv University.

Funding came from government agencies in Israel, which invested $3 million, and from Coronis Parters, an Israeli investment house that specializes in life sciences, which invested $7 million in the company.

At a meeting in Tel Aviv recently, Ehud Arad, a partner at Coronis, told ISRAEL21c that the platform technology Sepal is based on is a compound found in the jasmine plant and is “inspired by nature.”

Arad says the research makes an “interesting story because the molecules address the cancer issue in a special way.”

Jasmonate causes cancer cell death

It has been known for some time in the scientific community that hexokinase enhances the viability of cancer cells. Hexokinase is an enzyme found in cancer cells (and in healthy cells too). Inside our bodies hexokinase normally does not bind to mitochondria, our cells’ energy factories. In cancer, however, it couples with mitochondria and increases the metabolism of the cell causing cancer to proliferate and survive — even during cancer treatment.

Sepal’s drug can bind to the hexokinase enzyme in cancer cells and pull it away from the mitochondria making cancer cells more prone to death. Sepal’s scientific studies have found that jasmonate can cause cancer cell death as well. To the best of the company’s knowledge it is probably the first small molecule that can pull the hexokinase enzyme from the mitochondria, while leaving healthy non-cancer cells intact.

The jasmonate compound isolated by Sepal is an attractive complementary drug to existing cancer therapies, as it can reduce the devastating side effects of chemotherapy, and make anti-cancer drugs work more effectively.

Sepal is out to prove that jasmine has a lot more to offer than a sweet smell. Called the jasmonate scaffold, the researchers hope to license their technology to pharmaceutical companies and strategic partners in order to make existing drugs more effective, while at the same time Sepal will be working on its own novel formulation.

“In a nutshell, it suppresses the cancer cell energy production,” concludes Arad.