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Posted 12.06.07


COLUMBIA, MO - Sutherlandia may be unfamiliar to many North Americans, but in South Africa, where traditional medicines are used by many people, and often supplement conventional medicines, many consider it a miracle plant. Those that use Sutherlandia claim that it cures ailments from depression to cancer.

Sutherlandia is the focus of research at The International Center for Indigenous Phytotherapy Studies (TICIPS), a center led by the University of Missouri and the University of the Western Cape in South Africa. TICIPS researchers are preparing to study the plant in a large clinical trial beginning shortly after the New Year. Despite the frequent use and popularity of herbal remedies, this is the first time that an African traditional medicine will be the focus of a placebo-controlled, clinical trial study of the efficacy and safety.

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“Most people of the African public at risk for HIV, tuberculosis and malaria use traditional medicines such as Sutherlandia. Yet, very little is known about their safety and efficacy,” said Bill Folk, MU senior associate dean for research and professor of biochemistry in the School of Medicine. “This clinical trial is the first to be conducted using established norms that give evidence of safety and efficacy. It also should serve as a guide for many future studies.”

Folk is the principal investigator on the study, which was funded by a grant from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health. He also is the co-director of TICIPS.

The double-blind, randomized clinical trial will study the safety of Sutherlandia in HIV- infected adults in South Africa. The 120 participants will take capsules of Sutherlandia or a placebo over a period of six months. The researchers conducting the trial—Doug Wilson, chief of medicine at Edendale Hospital in Pietemaritzburg, South Africa, and Kathy Goggin, associate professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City—and their teams will follow the health of the participants, including the progression of AIDS symptoms, viral load (the amount of viruses in the blood stream), CD4 count (a measure of the immune system), weight, and measures of quality of life and depression.

Though Sutherlandia is usually sold as dried plant material, it also comes in capsules and pills in South Africa. It is available in the United States through the Internet. Some of the Sutherlandia producers claim that the plant supports “the immune system and general well being.” Manufacturers also claim that Sutherlandia promotes appetite.

According to a study by the World Health Organization, 80 percent of people worldwide rely on herbal medicines for some aspect of their primary healthcare. In the United States, 158 million people reported using complementary medicines. In 2000, Americans spent $17 billion on traditional remedies.

One of Folk’s concerns is whether the use of Sutherlandia affects the activity of scientifically validated conventional medicines for AIDS or TB. He also is concerned about the lack of consistency of the Sutherlandia sold on the market. In conjunction with the trial, TICIPS researchers will assess these questions, and hope to have the results of the clinical trial by fall 2009.



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