A medicinal plant used in Africa for centuries to boost immunity – and currently being taken by people with HIV – is to be tested by scientists in a clinical trial next year. This follows a growing body of scientific research, medical reports and anecdotal evidence that the plant, Sutherlandia, helps those with HIV and other diseases that compromise the immune system, to gain weight and fight infection. The Medical Research Council (MRC) is setting up a phase I/II trial on Sutherlandia (referred to locally as unwele), and its ethics committee has already approved the terms of the trial. The trial will involve 40 people and look at safety as well as some aspects of efficacy. According to the MRC, the “pilot trial will start once we have approval from the Medicines Control Council”.

“Improvements in CD4 counts [a measure of immunity] and decreases in the viral load in AIDS patients taking Sutherlandia have been reported by clinicians in South Africa and Australia,” says Dr Nigel Gericke, a medical doctor and botanist who has formed a company called Phyto Nova to promote Sutherlandia and other indigenous medicinal plants.

Renowned traditional healer Credo Mutwa is also part of Phyto Nova, a unique enterprise that brings together South African scientists and traditional healers committed to using indigenous remedies to treat diseases such as HIV/AIDS. A local pharmaceutical manufacturing company has linked up with Phyto Nova to manufacture Sutherlandia tablets countrywide, and Phyto Nova has taken a principled decision not to patent any part of the plant. The Sutherlandia tablets will hit the shelves of the retail chain Discom within the next two weeks, retailing at R16,99 for two weeks’ supply. Sutherlandia is one of a basket of natural remedies being distributed by Discom to boost immune-compromised people who cannot afford expensive drugs. Other remedies available are tablets of the African potato (retailing as Labatheka), Spirulina and Aloe Vera. Extensive research by botanist Professor Ben-Erik van Wyk from Rand Afrikaans University and medical scientist Dr Carl Albrecht of Stellenbosch University has found that compounds in the plant have anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal activities. It also contains a natural anti-depressant. Gericke says the plant is safe to use and no severe side effects have been reported. In the interest of public health, formal scientific safety studies are currently underway at MRC facilities funded by the National Research Foundation. “Initially, the Phyto Nova team tested the Sutherlandia tablets in high doses on ourselves, fellow doctors who support our efforts, and willing family members and friends,” said Gericke. Should the MRC trial confirm anecdotal reports that Sutherlandia improves appetite, mediates weight gain and boosts the immune system, this is likely to greatly increase the demand for Sutherlandia tablets as well as providing an affordable local weapon in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
– Health-e News Service.