Tradition has it that you get a welcome in the hillsides. But shepherd Kevin Stephens (below, right) is planning to supply something else entirely – a drug to fight Alzheimer’s disease, no less, extracted from the Welsh national flower, the humble daffodil. And the revolution is due to start next year.
The story behind Kevin’s company, Agroceutical Products, sounds as likely as building a time machine in your garden shed. But with queries from drug companies coming in from every continent, it is clear that the world is beginning to take notice of what Kevin’s daffs might mean for the millions of people round the world suffering from Alzheimer’s.
He plans to grow hundreds of acres of daffodils for harvesting in 2015 to sell commercially. Not to florists for St David’s Day celebrations but to drug companies he says are desperate for Galanthamine, a naturally occurring chemical capable of easing the symptoms of dementia among those suffering Alzheimer’s disease.
“We have developed a way of harvesting and storing the daffodils no one has done before,” he says. “The other growers think we are mad but we aren’t. And we have a way of extracting the Galanthamine no one has done either. It means we are even cheaper than China.”
With some 800,000 dementia sufferers in the UK alone, 62 per cent of whom have Alzheimer’s – set to rise to 1.7 million by 2050 – the earning potential in this area could be huge. Currently, dementia is believed to cost the UK £23bn each year in resources. Around the world, 101 million old people are currently dependent due to dementia – a figure expected to almost treble in the next 40 years.
The down-to-earth farmer expects to be growing thousands of acres of the bright yellow flowers within a decade. And the beauty of it is, his hillside farm is the ideal place to pull off his agri-coup.
To explain how this all came about, he patiently suggests he starts his story all the way back in the 1950s. And he credits his friend, Professor Trevor Walker, with the genius to see a hitherto hidden potential.
Then the Berlin Wall came down. “In the late 1980s, early 1990s, Professor Walker was working for the World Bank, and while in Eastern Europe he came across Bulgarians growing snowdrops to extract Galanthamine.
“At the time he thought what they were doing was pretty second-rate – and he simply put it to one side. It wasn’t until 2002 that he thought about it again, when he got a call from a friend. This man’s wife had early onset Alzheimer’s at the age of just 58. Professor Walker thought to himself – I’m going to do something about that!”
The Professor, now in his 80s and retired, made the connection between the Bulgarians farming snowdrops and the growing, global Alzheimer’s crisis. He knew that Galanthamine had long been proven to delay the onset of the disease for some patients. The problem was – and remains – that synthetic Galanthamine is relatively expensive and in short supply. Walker thought the answer might be a commercial crop of flowers producing the chemical naturally.
After six years of “kitchen table research”, he identified 12 to 15 varieties of daffodil that developed “sensible” volumes of Galanthamine. He teamed up with Stephens in 2008 and together they began growing sample crops.
They found that the best place to grow the plants, to produce the most Galanthamine, was at high altitude, in a wet, mild climate. And that the worse the weather got, the more the plants produced Galanthamine.
Which means – as anyone who has spent time in the principality knows – Wales is ideal. With farmers increasingly finding it hard to make a living, growing non-traditional crops or crops for non-trad-itional reasons is becoming more common.
A Scottish government report from June 2013 estimates that land used for non-food growth such as flower bulbs and nursery stock north of the border has increased 30 per cent in the past decade. These range from biofuels to rapeseed oil for cooking. Defra statistics for England and Wales show that the area of arable land used for biofuel crops has trebled from 2008 to 2011.
As farms throughout the South West struggle with terrible weather conditions, could the salvation of the British farmer really be in the form of growing crops to produce the ingredients not for your breakfast but for high-tech medicines?
As one UK government guidance paper notes, the return on crops for the pharmaceutical industry can often be high – from a relatively low volumes of plants.
However, Professor Jayne Lawrence of King’s College London, chief scientist at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, strikes a note of caution. “Anything between a quarter and a half of modern drugs have been derived from plants,” she points out.
“Aspirin – acetylsalicylic acid – comes from willow bark. Strychnine is another example. Foxglove, or Digitalis, is where we get the drug digoxin from, a heart drug. But the chemicals we use now are generally created synthetically. This is because laboratory conditions mean we can control the purity of these compounds much better.
“That’s not to say what this farmer in Wales is doing is a bad idea. I don’t know anything about this specific case. The question for the drugs companies is how financially viable this approach might be. That said, a lot of the chemicals we use in the synthetic creation of drugs come from petrochemicals. If oil becomes more scarce, organically grown sources may make more sense.”
Agroceutical’s innovative approach has been welcomed by those working towards creating a cure for those suffering from dementia. One point they were keen to highlight, however, is that although a welcome treatment, Galanthamine isn’t a cure.
Research scientist Jess Smith comments: “It’s great that someone is trying to do this, to use natural means to create a drug. And it’s fantastic that it is happening here in the UK too. Galanthamine is one of only four drugs licensed to treat Alzheimer’s. It has limitations but it does slow the progression of the illness.”
Jeremy Hughes, chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Society, adds: “There are currently very few treatments and no cure for dementia. In fact, there have been no new treatments for the condition since 2003 and those in existence do little to slow the progression of the disease and aren’t suitable for everyone.
“With the condition affecting so many people, it’s vital that we both find more effective treatments for those with dementia today while ultimately trying to find a cure.”
It is a vast challenge. The G8 dementia summit in December saw a call for a life-changing treatment or cure by 2025. The UK aims to double its annual research funding to £132m by 2025 and Alzheimer’s Society pledged a minimum of £100m over the next decade.
But as Hughes points out, it is a “global problem” that will only be overcome with international collaboration. In Wales, up on his hillside, Kevin Stephens knows that he doesn’t have the cure for Alzheimer’s in his grasp. But he hopes his hard work over the past few years will pay off – while giving some sufferers a few extra years of good health.
“There’s something poetic about the fact it is the daffodil that’s giving us the Galanthamine – and that you get the best result grown in the Welsh mountains,” he says. “There are mountains all around the world but daffodils love a mild, wet, miserable spring. And that about sums Wales up, really.”
Gary Chandler is a prion expert. He is the CEO of Crossbow Communications, author of several books and producer of documentaries about health and environmental issues around the world. Chandler is connecting the dots to the global surge in neurodegenerative disease, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, chronic wasting disease and other forms of prion disease. The scientific name for prion disease is transmissible spongiform encephalopathy. The operative word is “transmissible.” Even the global surge in autism appears to be related.