South African Scientists, Healers Unite to Spread Word of Medicinal Plant Used to Treat HIV Before Drug Companies ‘Cash In’
An "unconventional alliance" of scientists and traditional healers is trying to spread the word about a South African plant that could help people with HIV/AIDS before pharmaceutical companies "cash in" on the herbal remedy and market the plant "in expensive drug form," the London Independent reports. The group is circulating information about Sutherlandia frutescens microphylla -- which "looks like a small gladiola" and "grows like a weed" -- in an effort to ensure that the plant remains in the "public domain," therefore rendering it unpatentable. Nigel Gericke, a botanist and physician who owns Phyto Nova, a company that grows and sells the plant, says that while there is no reason to think Sutherlandia will cure HIV, "none of the [multinational drug companies] are claiming a cure either." The plant contains elements that are already patented by drug companies for use in cancer, diabetes, fungal disease and anxiety treatments, but Sutherlandia itself has yet to be patented. The small, flowering plant, which is already being sold in tablet, tea and gel forms, will undergo clinical trials next year to determine the validity of the claims that it prompts weight gain, enhances energy levels and improves mood in AIDS patients (Smith, Independent, 11/30). The South African Medical Research Council is setting up a Phase I/II trial to confirm the "anecdotal evidence" that the plant, used for centuries by indigenous South Africans, is safe and effective in treating some of the symptoms of HIV/AIDS. Previous research by botanist and professor Ben-Erik van Wyk of Rand Afrikaans University and medical scientist Dr. Carl Albrecht of Stellenbosch University determined that Sutherlandia has antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal and antidepressant properties. The trial, which will include 40 volunteers, will begin once the MRC receives approval from the South African Medicines Control Council (Cullinan, Health-e News, 11/30).
Verifying Herbal Remedies' Success
Recognizing that there are not enough "conventional drugs" to aid all HIV-positive Ugandans, the Irish charity Concern is financing research and training to improve the quality of and access to affordable herbal medicines in the country, the Belfast News Letter reports. Researcher Sophia Kerwegi of the National Chemotherapeutic Research Laboratory in Uganda said that the research is "just verifying what the community already knew from knowledge that has been passed down through thousands of years." Ugandans have been relying for years on herbal medications for various ailments, such as headache and cough, but are just now investigating the herbal medications that can help people with HIV/AIDS. Concern's support extends to legal protection against "bio-pirat[ing]" from drug companies wanting to profit from the herbal remedies. While Kerwegi acknowledged that there is no known herbal cure for AIDS, she said that herbal medicine "definitely extends life and is extremely effective at relieving pain and curing symptoms" (Bradley, Belfast News Letter, 11/30).