AITHM James Cook University


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10 May 2023

Diabetes-related foot ulceration (DFU) – a potentially life-threatening condition – affects around 50,000 Australians, causing 28,000 hospital admissions and 5000 amputations each year. The annual cost to the healthcare system is an estimated $1.6 billion, according to a recent article in the BMC Journal of Foot and Ankle Research. Scientists are investigating new treatments which may have potential to halt the devastating progress of DFU.

AITHM PhD candidate Antin Widi is conducting a pioneering analysis of bioactive compounds found in a traditional medicine plant family, Euphorbiaceae, known for its wound-healing properties – and the initial results are highly promising.

Preliminary testing of compounds isolated from several varieties of the plant species have demonstrated their ability to enhance cell growth – a crucial part of the wound-healing process – by up to 150 per cent.

“This is the first in-depth study that reveals the particular bioactivity of euphorbia plants and their bio-constituents – and their potential for modern wound healing treatment, including diabetic ulcers,” said Ms Widi.

Euphorbia plants are a popular traditional medicine in countless countries around the world. They grow easily in a range of habitats, including tropical and arid areas.

Ms Widi and her husband, both qualified veterinarians, first encountered the healing properties of Euphorbia in their home country, Indonesia, where a local farmer recommended that they use the plant to treat a goat with an inflamed leg wound. The injury healed quickly – sparking Ms Widi’s scientific curiosity, which she was able to pursue in earnest when she enrolled for a PhD at AITHM in 2020, under the supervision of renowned structural biologist, Professor Norelle Daly.

Herbal medicines are traditionally applied in the form of crude extracts which might also contain toxic compounds that produce negative side effects. The Euphorbia plant family is known for its toxic sap, which irritates the skin and can even lead to temporary blindness.

Hence the need to identify and isolate promising bioactive compounds within the plants that can be safely utilised without triggering side effects.

Ms Widi used High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) to extract bioactive compounds from crude Euphorbia extracts, which were then subjected to the cell proliferation tests. The most promising compounds were then characterized, using Mass Spectrometry (MS) to determine their molecular mass, and Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) to configure their molecular structure.

“It’s important to do the molecular characterization side of bio discovery, so we know what’s actually causing the activity, rather than merely looking at the results,” said Professor Daly.

The next stage of the research project will involve assessing the wound healing potential of the compounds through in vitro scratch assay tests, followed by in vivo tests involving a diabetic mouse model to gauge and compare the therapeutic impact of each compound on diabetic wounds.

Professor Daly welcomed her PhD student’s promising results to date.

“When you start these projects, you don’t know what to expect. When you initially get really good results, you know you’ve got somewhere to go!” she said.

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