Race to stop drug firms patenting African plant that helps Aids victims

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An unconventional alliance of South African scientists and traditional healers is frantically trying to spread information about an indigenous plant which can help people infected with HIV – before the pharmaceutical industry markets it in expensive drug form.

Sutherlandia frutescens microphylla looks like a small gladiola, grows like a weed, tastes horrible but costs next to nothing. For the five million South Africans infected with the Aids virus but unable to get access to expensive drugs, the plant may be a chance of turning HIV into what it is already in rich countries – a chronic rather than a fatal illness.

In a unique partnership that has quietly grown amid the much-publicised reluctance of the South African government to embrace the use of Western drugs, a group of botanists, biochemists, GPs and two renowned traditional healers have obtained remarkable results by using Sutherlandia – called insisa (the one that dispels darkness) by generations of South Africa's indigenous people, the San (or Bushmen). Next year, it is due to undergo clinical trials.

Nigel Gericke, 46, a Cape Town-based botanist and GP, said the plant's principal, visible property is to prompt weight-gain in patients with full-blown Aids, enhance their energy levels, and improve their mood. "We have seen several examples of bed-ridden people able to get up after a month's treatment and even to return to subsistence farming," he said.

Dr Gericke stressed there was no evidence that Sutherlandia could banish HIV "but then none of the multinationals are claiming a cure, either". Unlike commercial drug therapies which can cost thousands of dollars, Sutherlandia – whose worst side-effect seems to be dizziness – is being sold for £2.50 for a month's supply of tablets, or 60p for two months' worth of tea. A gel has also been developed for treating shingles – a common complaint among people with HIV.

The plant, said Dr Gericke, is a "portfolio of beautiful chemicals" which has been widely used for a range of illnesses for centuries. "Because it was a 'tonic', scientists dismissed it. They always rush, with classical reductionist thinking, to look for a magic ingredient. But Aids itself is so complex, it is already clear that there will not be a one-stop solution."

Credo Mutwa, 80, is a traditional healer and a crucial partner in Dr Gericke's small company, Phyto Nova, which grows Sutherlandia on three South African farms, thereby also creating employment.

Mr Mutwa said: "The effect is miraculous, not just for people with HIV but for people with full-blown Aids. We have been told by the doctors that nothing can be done for them. And we pick up these people. People who were expecting to die three years ago are still alive." The team working with Sutherlandia believes that clinical trials will prove that, taken regularly, the plant has strong immune-boosting properties and increases CD4-cell counts – the crucial blood-borne component of the body's defence shield.

Sutherlandia contains high levels of canavanine, pinitol and gaba – already individually patented by drug firms as treatments for cancer, fungal infections, diabetes and anxiety.

The team will have no trouble convincing poor, black people of the virtues of the natural remedy – millions consult traditional healers every day – but the government has shown enormous scepticism.

The team, mindful that unless it acts quickly the pharmaceutical industry will cash in, has therefore started treating hundreds of people and distributing seeds to whoever will have them. "As long as you can prove that something is in the public domain and is widely used to treat Aids, no one can come along and patent it for profit," said Dr Gericke.