The department of science and technology (DST) has awarded 10 million rand (US$1.4 million) for the study of Sutherlandia frutescens, which is often called the 'cancer bush' and is credited with wide-ranging powers to alleviate symptoms.
The phase IIb trial will be conducted at the University of the Western Cape's South African Herbal Science and Medicine Institute (SAHSMI), which has been conducting scientific and clinical studies on the plant for seven years.
Sutherlandia is popular with traditional healers, who use it to treat a host of ailments from weight loss to aches and pains. But critics say there is a lack of scientific evidence to support their claims and those of companies that already market products containing the plant.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that Sutherlandia promotes appetite, weight gain, sleep, exercise tolerance and an overall sense of well-being in patients suffering from HIV and AIDS, and studies indicate that it improves CD4 blood cell counts and decreases the viral load. Some believe it may even delay the progression from HIV to AIDS.
A small, unpublished phase IIa trial showed that a preparation using the dried leaf of Sutherlandia was well tolerated with no side effects.
The study's principal investigator, Doug Wilson, told the South African newspaper BusinessDay that the research is likely to be finalised later this year.
Wilson said that, even if the results were positive, much more work would be needed before consumers would find a Sutherlandia treatment for HIV on pharmacy shelves. Researchers would need to identify the active ingredients before they could start drug development, he added.
Tommy Makhode, the DST's chief director for communications, told SciDev.Net that his department's interest stems from the fact that South African researchers developed the formulation that would be registered with the Medicines Control Council if the trial is successful.
Quinton Johnson, director of SAHSMI, said that several challenges, from regulatory delays to public-service strikes, have slowed their research, which began in 2003.
"We continue to experience significant opposition to our work from the mainstream research and pharmaceutical communities, who seem to misunderstand the importance of building bridges between various knowledge systems in support of better public health," he told SciDev.Net. As a result, he said, his work receives limited funding and academic understanding.
"It has impeded the growth and development of the field focused on the science of herbal traditional medicine," added Johnson, who is also South African director of the International Centre for Indigenous Phytotherapy Studies.
Most people use traditional medicines, said Johnson, so collaboration to understand this indigenous health system is in the interests of public health.