University of Kent researches treatment of Vietnam liver cancer

The University of Kent has been awarded £673,000 by the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) to investigate the use of plant chemicals for liver cancer treatment.

The GCRF is a £1.5 billion fund introduced in 2015, with the aim of addressing challenges faced by developing countries and to support cutting-edge research for global benefit.

The research, led by Dr Christopher Serpell at the University’s School of Physical Sciences and Professor Michelle Garrett at the School of Biosciences, will take place both in Kent and in Vietnam, where liver cancer is a critical problem, killing 25,000 people yearly.

This is due to multiple factors, including prevalent hepatitis B and C rates, high alcohol consumption, and toxins such as Agent Orange still in the environment since the Vietnam War. Cultural and economic reasons also mean patients frequently seek modern medicine only after having first attempted traditional herbal remedies.

The team will look into the potential for native plant Centella asiatica’s chemicals to be used in treatments of liver cancer. Asiatica is a popular medicinal herb in Vietnam, and it had been discovered that one of its natural products, madecassic acid, is active against liver cancer. Chemical derivatives of the plant show further potential, which will also be the subject of investigation.

Research will involve optimising conditions for madecassic acid production, improvement of the extraction processes, broadening the range of chemical derivatives for use, in-depth studies on the cellular effects of madecassic acid and exploring controlling the rate of release in the body.

This work will be supported by networking activities with stakeholders (doctors, industrialists, farmers, policy makers) in Vietnam, and survey work to assess attitudes of the population to medicines which cross over the traditional-modern divide.

Dr Christopher Serpell, Principle Investigator and Senior Lecturer in Chemistry at the University’s School of Physical Sciences, said: ‘This funding is of huge importance to the future of this project, one that has potential to be of incredible benefit to people the world over and particularly in Vietnam. Being able to collaborate with colleagues in Vietnam also shows the benefits of working internationally, sharing the expertise for progress worldwide.’

Kent are recruiting a postdoctoral research associate to work on the project – details of that post can be found here: