Traditional medicine for HIV to go on trial

The seeds of Sutherlandia frutescens Copyright: USDA/Tracey Slotta

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Clinical trials to test a traditional medicine’s effectiveness in delaying the onset of AIDS in HIV-positive patients will begin in South Africa within weeks, according to researchers.

Approximately 125 HIV-positive patients at Edendale Hospital in Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal province will take part in trials of the herb Sutherlandia frutescens, a well-known South African traditional medicine.

The purpose of the trial will be to test the safety and effectiveness of capsules of Sutherlandia in patients newly diagnosed with HIV.

The scientists announced their plans last week (28 August), saying the project will most likely begin this month, once the South African Medicines Control Council completes its final regulatory check. They expect to have results by August 2009.

The research will be conducted by the South African universities of KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape, along with the Traditional Healers’ Association of South Africa and the US-based University of Missouri.

Traditional healers use Sutherlandia frutescens, sometimes known as ‘cancer bush’, to treat a host of ailments from weight loss to aches and pains.

Sutherlandia has several active ingredients, said Quinton Johnson, one of the study researchers and director of the International Centre for Indigenous Phytotherapy Studies at the University of the Western Cape.

The plant contains pinitol (a compound with anti-diabetic properties), canavine (used by traditional healers to treat wasting diseases like tuberculosis) and the amino acid GABA, which produces a feeling of wellbeing.

Nceba Gqaleni, deputy dean of the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine, said this was the first collaboration between scientists and traditional healers to assess the effectiveness of indigenous practices in treating such a serious health issue.

"This research will further the cause of traditional medicine, as well as assist scientific study," he told SciDev.Net.

Sazi Mhlongo, chairman of the Traditional Healers’ Association of South Africa, told SciDev.Net that the plant is "the most powerful of our herbs, which we mix with other herbs to treat a lot of different problems".

Mhlongo, who has practised as a traditional healer in KwaZulu-Natal for 34 years, said traditional healers have become increasingly aware of the herb’s success in treating HIV-positive patients. Patients who took it "felt better", he said.