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Century-old drug may have dramatic new use

News Center | May 14, 2013

Rick Schnellmann

Rick Schnellmann, PhD, is the chairman of the Department of Drug Discovery and Biomedical Science at the South Carolina College of Pharmacy.

A study by researchers at the South Carolina College of Pharmacy (SCCP) found a new purpose for an old drug: reducing kidney disease in diabetic patients using a compound previously indicated for African Sleeping Sickness.

Study data, published in the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, suggest that administration of suramin decreased the progression of diabetic nephropathy (DN) and DN-induced end-stage renal disease (ESRD) in rats. The investigators concluded that the kidney function of diabetic rats treated with suramin was as good as that of control rats which were used for comparison.

Journal of Pharmacology
The Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics

“Suramin use could have a significant impact,” said lead researcher Rick Schnellmann, chairman of the Department of Drug Discovery and Biomedical Science at the SCCP. “Diabetic patients are prone to kidney disease, and failure to prevent its advancement is a major issue for both the patient and the healthcare system. Our study showed very promising results for reducing some of the most important events in the DN progression, especially because therapeutic options are limited for DN treatment.”

Patients with DN-induced ESRD have more than doubled in the past decade, increasing the urgent need for renal replacement therapy. According to the 2010 annual report of the United States Renal Data System, ESRD costs in 2008 rose more than 13 percent to nearly $27 billion, representing almost six percent of the Medicare budget.

Suramin has a very long and interesting history. The drug, discovered in 1912, has been used to treat African Sleeping Sickness and river blindness caused by trypanosomes for some time. It remains a popular treatment due to its low cost, compared with more recent synthetic treatments.  Suramin has been tested as therapeutic strategy for cancer and HIV, but with limited/minimal success. Suramin has been studied in kidney diseases for only a few years.

“Identifying an affordable way to limit the amount of renal injury caused by DN would be a significant step forward in achieving better disease management and better health outcomes for diabetic patients,” Schnellmann said.

Diabetic patients are at risk for renal disease because high blood sugar is harmful to multiple kidney cell types. Consequently, injured kidneys leak proteins into the urine, which is one way to identify the damage. The increase in DN-induced ESRD is due, at least in part, to insufficient knowledge of how three events in DN progression—oxidative stress, inflammation and fibrosis—contribute to DN and subsequent late-stage detection. Late diagnosis of kidney disease usually results in kidney failure, requiring a kidney transplant.

In the paper, “Diabetes-Induced Renal Injury in Rats Is Attenuated by Suramin” Schnellmann’s laboratory reports that delayed administration of suramin positively affected all three renal events. Laboratory tests on suramin-treated animals revealed the rats had fewer excreted urine proteins and less inflammation and fibrosis which was prevalent in the diabetic animals. Such promising results support the potential use of suramin to reduce renal injury in diabetic patients.  Furthermore, because suramin is an FDA-approved drug with a long history of safety and human tolerability, clinical trials in humans could be initiated quickly.

Other authors on the study included Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) SCCP colleagues Midhun Korrapati and Brooke Shaner and Benjamin Neely, Joseph Alge, and John Arthur from the MUSC College of Medicine.

To read the manuscript for this study, please visit

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Diabetes-Induced Renal Injury in Rats Is Attenuated by Suramin


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