In addition to its popular role in flavoring ice cream, fudge and cake frosting, vanilla may have a future use as a medicine. Recent laboratory research has strengthened the possibility that a form of vanilla may become a drug to treat sickle cell disease.
After specially bred mice received a compound that turns into vanilla in the body, they survived five times longer than mice that did not receive the chemical. All the mice had been subjected to low oxygen pressure, a condition that causes their red blood cells to form the hazardous sickle shape. Results of the study, led by research hematologist Toshio Asakura, M.D., Ph.D., of The Childrens Hospital of Philadelphia, appeared in the June 2004 issue of the British Journal of Haematology.
It had been known for 30 years that vanillin, the compound that gives the vanilla bean its flavor, protects red blood cells with sickle cell disease from assuming the sickle shape that obstructs blood vessels. However, this effect previously occurred only in test tubes, because vanillin normally breaks down in the digestive tract before reaching the bloodstream.
Scientists at Medinox, a San Diego-based biotechnology company, developed a variant of vanillin called MX-1520, chemically modifying it to resist degradation by the digestive system. MX-1520 is a prodrug--a compound that becomes an active drug (in this case, vanillin) in the body.
John Ascenzi | EurekAlert!
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