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Chemists create Alzheimer's-fighting extract in lab

The compound, called huperzine A, is naturally found in Chinese moss, but it's slow-growing and on the verge of extinction. Scientists say making it in the lab could result in an extreme cost reduction.

Chemists at Yale University are unveiling what they call the first practical method to create the compound huperzine A, which is a naturally occurring extract of Chinese club moss.

Yale chemist Seth Herzon Yale University

The enzyme inhibitor has been used widely in China and now beyond to treat memory loss in disorders such as Alzheimer's disease, and some research indicates it might help fight the effects of chemical warfare agents in primates.

But the plant, whose scientific name is Huperzia serrata, is both slow-growing and overharvested, resulting in a price tag upwards of $1,000 per milligram. The Yale team's success creating a few grams in a lab on the cheap has them predicting their method will result in an enormous price drop, down to as little as 50 cents per milligram.

Researchers have projected that 1 milligram is the sufficient daily dose to help combat memory loss. That's right, this finding could drop the cost of the extract from $1,000 per day to 50 cents per day.

"Being able to synthesize large amounts of huperzine A in the lab is crucial because the plant itself, which has been used in Chinese folk medicine for centuries, takes decades to grow and is nearing extinction due to overharvesting," said Yale chemist Seth Herzon, who led the research, in a news release.

Herzon said the process involves a mere eight steps--a big improvement over previous techniques that involved twice as many steps and a far smaller yield. And while other enzyme inhibitors are on the market to help treat Alzheimer's, Herzon said huperzine A binds better, is absorbed by the body more easily, and lasts longer.

"We believe huperzine A has the potential to treat a range of neurological disorders more effectively than the current options available," Herzon said. "And we now have a route to huperzine A that rivals nature's pathway."

The team describes its methods this week in the journal Chemical Science. Next up: to further investigate the effects of the extract on various neurological disorders via clinical trials, and to work with the U.S. Army studying its potential in blocking the effects of chemical warfare agents.