Three anonymous plants from the Eastern Cape in South Africa - call them Tom, Dick and Harry - are causing great excitement among scientists trying to find a low-cost, easy-to-use treatment for that secretive longterm killer, diabetes.
The names of the indigenous plants cannot be disclosed. Not even details about what type of plant (succulent, grass or tree, for example) nor even what part of the plant - (root or stem? leaf or flower?) is being disclosed. This is because the researchers are going to great lengths to protect both the plants, which only grow in a few areas, and their source of the biotechnology information: traditional healers in the rural areas outside Port Elizabeth, who have been using the plants to treat local diabetics.
But Sonia Wolfe-Coote, director of the Cape Town-based Diabetes Research Group for the Medical Research Council, says a series of tests on the herbal trio's effectiveness has yielded amazing results.
"It's really remarkable," she said. "They combined several aspects of what you would look for in a medicine. They don't just reduce blood sugar but do other things as well, tackling insulin resistance, which is when something stops the insulin from working, and with insulin degradation, when it is broken down too soon to work."
It's ironic that traditional remedies may lead to successful medical treatments for a disease which is soaring in Africa in large part due to the ills of modern life, including urbanisation, processed Westernised food and a lack of physical activity. For every one person diagnosed with diabetes worldwide, another person goes undiagnosed. It's likely to be even worse in Africa. These new herbal medications are badly needed.
"If we can get the funding, we can have clinical trials underway by the end of 2004," Wolfe-Coote said. But private investment is not a priority. The researchers hope for state or non-governmental organisation assistance so that the cost of the eventual product stays as low as possible, and so that the healers who revealed their knowledge are not exploited. They also want to extend the research to all nine of South Africa's provinces.
"We don't want to benefit personally out of this," said Wolfe-Coote. "We just want something cheaper. Only the traditional healers tell us we must not use the word cheap, they say it doesn't sound right. So we are told to use the words more affordable."
Wolfe-Coote paid tribute to nurses in the Eastern Cape who went out to run clinics in the rural regions, and in the process developed links with traditional healers. Much of the initial work was done in the countryside, together with help from the biochemistry department at the University of Port Elizabeth.
The consortium of researchers and traditional healers has proceeded very cautiously for the last 18 months, with extensive tests for toxic substances and for effectiveness, starting with lab tissue cultures and proceeding on to three different kinds of rats. Another researcher, Dr Johan Louw, says the three herbs passed with flying colours.
Vervet monkeys are now being used to double-check the tests in a three to six month process which monitors the primates' blood, kidney and liver functions. The herbs have also been harvested and tested at different times of the year, to work out seasonal variations in the active ingredients.
Another exciting aspect of the research is being done by the Agricultural Research Council's Post-Harvest and Wine Technology division. They've mooted the idea of creating small herb farms. This is particularly significant for the economically depressed Eastern Cape because if the herb grows elsewhere, it loses its power. The compounds in the herbs may be effective but they're also quite delicate.
"Sometimes even if it's grown on the other side of the mountain, it doesn't work," says Wolfe-Coote. She suggests the difference may be due to soil or climate changes; the traditional healers credit the spirits of their ancestors as well.
These farms could have a small processing plant on site which could take the dry ingredients and put them in a form familiar to the patients who use traditional healers: in other words, the humble tea bag.
"Instead of a capsule, we are looking at people using boiling water and giving themselves a cup of tea, perhaps three or four times a day," says Dr Louw.
The longterm complications of too much sugar in a diabetic's bloodstream include amputation and blindness, strokes, heart and kidney failure. Medication is frighteningly expensive. And it's not a once-off injection, either. Diabetics have to take their drugs every day for the rest of their lives. This pushes up the cost of private medical aids, drains public health resources, cripples diabetics' personal lives and badly compromises the economy.
So the sooner diabetics can pour themselves a nice cup of herbal tea, the better.
Medical research council South Africa: www.mrc.ac.za
Diabetes - the search for earlier detection and for replacement of lost insulin-producing cells