MS drugs from Chinese herbs.

The Wall Street Journal dishes the dirt on the humble origins of a new pill for treating multiple sclerosis:

Fingolimod comes from an idea hatched a quarter-century ago by Tetsuro Fujita, a Kyoto University pharmacology professor who had investigated bitter plants used in traditional Asian medicine. A wonder drug at the time was cyclosporin, which helps tamp down the immune system in transplant patients to reduce the risk of organ rejection. The chemical cyclosporin is derived from a fungus, first isolated from soil samples, that uses the substance to attack other fungi.

Dr. Fujita says he reasoned that an even more powerful immunosuppressant chemical ought to be present in a group of Asian fungi known in Chinese and Japanese as “winter-insect-summer-plants.” These fungi attack insects in the winter with their chemical arsenal. By summertime, the insect is dead and its corpse has been transformed into a vessel for the blooming fungus. Ironically, the same properties that make the chemical deadly in the insect world may also have a helpful side for people suffering from certain autoimmune diseases, in which an overactive immune-system response causes the body to attack its own cells.

Dr. Fujita assembled a team from his university and two Japanese companies to sift through the various fungal products. They found a potent immunosuppressant in a particular kind of winter-insect-summer-plant, called Isaria sinclairii. This fungus victimizes a particular type of cicada found in East Asia, using it as a host in which to propagate. Chinese herbal medicine had long identified Isaria sinclairii as a source of “eternal youth” along with ginseng and deer antlers.

The road from traditional remedy to pill is an interesting one – at first, they tried to market it as a transplant medication but failed.