Skip to main content
Skip to navigation

Aug. 25, 2010 Volume 32, No. 1

AIDS research clears key hurdle in South Africa


“Nature has thousands of secrets that we have yet to discover.”

An herbal remedy used by South African traditional healers to slow the wasting of HIV/AIDS has passed the first part of a clinical study in that country.

Results of the clinical trial, just completed by MU and University of Western Cape in South Africa, indicate the herb Sutherlandia poses no danger to adults with early stage HIV infection and does not appear to affect the progression of disease, said William Folk, principal investigator and professor of biochemistry at MU’s School of Medicine.

The research, co-directed by Folk and Quinton Johnson of the University of Western Cape, will determine the safety or value of Sutherlandia in treating HIV/AIDS. Folk and Johnson formed The International Center for Indigenous Phytotherapy Studies to study traditional medicines such as Sutherlandia. The center’s mission is to develop collaborative research on potentially medicinal plants to fight the diseases of Africa and America.

“The next step, now under way, will determine Sutherlandia’s effectiveness at preventing infections by other agents – bacterial, fungal and viral – and for improving appetite and slowing HIV-related wasting,” Folk said.

Treatments for HIV are of tremendous interest in South Africa, where an estimated 1,000 people become infected with the virus every day and another thousand die of AIDS. Nearly 20 percent of the adult population – 5.5 million people – is infected with HIV.

The two-year study of Sutherlandia was a randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial that sought to determine if consuming the herb affects the health of adults with early stage HIV infection. Half of the group consumed capsules of Sutherlandia, while the rest were given a placebo with similar appearance, texture and taste. A team of doctors at Edendale Hospital in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, monitored the patients’ health over six months. 

Folk said the Sutherlandia study is also important because it has created a technical and regulatory template that will speed future clinical studies of traditional medicines and drug discovery. It took Folk, Johnson and colleagues two years to gain approval for the first part of the study from South Africa’s Medicines Control Council, various ethics review boards and the NIH.

Traditional healers are still sought out by a large segment of the population in South Africa, Folk said. The country has more than 30,000 species of higher plants, of which some 3,000 are used for medicinal purposes. 

Few of these treatments have been scientifically tested. Sutherlandia — which South African healers call the “cancer bush” for its reputed ability to create a tonic to cure cancer and to fight weight loss in cancer patients — has been used for generations as a remedy for stress, influenza, asthma, bronchitis and gastritis. For centuries, these healers have dried its leaves to brew a simple tea that supposedly boosts the immune system. 

Sutherlandia is not the only traditional treatment being studied, Folk said. Another project focuses on African wormwood, Artemisia afra, a relative of sagebrush, which is widely used by traditional healers to treat conditions associated with HIV/AIDS and respiratory infections. There is evidence that it may also be useful in treating tuberculosis, Folk said. Another project will examine the plant’s potential for preventing or treating cervical cancer.

While some Western physicians consider herbal medicine a backwater science, there is ample evidence that some indigenous remedies can live up to unproven claims, Folk said. Aspirin’s active ingredient was extracted from the bark of a willow tree before scientists learned how to chemically synthesize the drug. Quinine is an extract of Cinchona tree bark that has been used for centuries to treat malaria. Recently, Taxol, produced from the Pacific yew, has become an important cancer-fighting drug. Digitalis, which helps regulate heart rhythms, also once was an herbal home remedy.

“Nature has thousands of secrets that we have yet to discover,” Folk said. “This is a step in uncovering some of those secrets and seeing how we can help the public burdened by infectious diseases and lacking access to medical care, better understand these traditional and alternative medicines.”

The results of the second part of the Sutherlandia clinical trial, funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a part of the National Institutes of Health, should be released in about two years.

— Randy Mertens