Herb Used By Hiv & Cancer Sufferers
Since Miami businessman Juan Ferreria began importing the Peruvian vine known as cat's claw in 1991, his shipments have soared from a mere two tons to 39 tons a year."It's a very hot herb," said Ferreria, owner of Ashaninka Imports.His success story wouldn't be compelling to most Americans if it weren't for the fact that cat's claw is being snatched up by people with health concerns ranging from arthritis to the HIV virus.While even its fans make only modest claims for the herb, often described as an effective anti-inflammatory agent, cat's claw, or uncaria tomentosa, is attracting attention because doctors and researchers have expressed interest in its potential as a treatment for cancer and as a potent immune system booster.American AIDS activists are keenly interested in the drug, but are skeptical."To me it's another alternative therapy for AIDS being bandied about," said Rick Loftus, a clinical researcher at the Community Research Initiative on AIDS in New York City."Because no formal studies have been done, anybody can say anything they want."Yet Loftus and others do not dismiss the herbal remedy as devoid of merit and argue that research funds should be directed to investigate this and other more promising herbal treatments."This is an indigenous treatment that some legitimate researchers are looking at," said Theo Smart, a medical writer for Treatment Issues published by the Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York City."But do I expect that there will be funding or resources to provide definitive answers? I doubt it," said Smart. "Will we know anytime soon whether it has potential? I doubt it."Cat's claw has been used successfully to treat inflammations associated with gastritis and arthritis. It is thought to strengthen the body's immunological system and some doctors believe that it may actually help to combat malignant tumors.The plant itself measures more than 20 meters long and is covered with hairy, claw-like spines. It has long been revered by the indigenous peoples of the Amazon jungle.Dr. Roberto Inchastegui, president of the Peruvian Committee for Sexually Transmitted Diseases and AIDS, in the Amazon city of Iquitos, claims to have cured seven AIDS patients with a preparation made from cat's claw and other jungle plants.But medical and scientific circles still view such pronouncements with skepticism."We must wait many more years to see whether a person is definitely cured of cancer or AIDS," insists biologist Ricardo Valderrama, who nevertheless accepts that uncaria tomentosa is "a powerful immunological stimulant and therefore helpful in the treatment of AIDS and cancer."Dr. Humberto Muro, a consultant at the Lima Naval Hospital, agrees that the plant's "anti-inflammatory effects have been demonstrated scientifically. We have also discovered various components which boost the immunological system."The Naval Hospital is one of several medical centers in Peru which have begun using cat's claw systematically in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis."I'd already tried different anti-inflammatory drugs," recalls Italo Sandoval, a patient there, "but the pain just became more intense and unbearable. Then a doctor at the hospital suggested I try cat's claw."Sandoval says he began to feel much better within a week. "Now I just take cat's claw, nothing else. It has no side effects and I even sleep well -- before I couldn't sleep because the pain was so terrible. I could hardly move," he says.Sandoval's doctor, Armando Luza, confirmed his story. "This patient was receiving conventional treatment, but the results weren't satisfactory. So we decided to try cat's claw, and were gradually able to suspend the other medications."According to Peruvian neurosurgeon Fernando Cabieses, an internationally recognized expert on medicinal plants, tests conducted in Europe have shown that uncaria tomentosa contains substances that inhibit the growth of cancerous cells.Researchers at the Innsbruck University Pharmacological Institute in Vienna, Austria, discovered that the plant contains six alkaloids with powerful therapeutic effects, and could serve as the basis for new medicines."I think it's an immune system booster, but I don't think it's a cure for AIDS," said Penny King of the American Botanical Council who recently returned from a trip to Peru. The Texas-based Council, which promotes herbal education, routinely organizes trips to South America to educate pharmacists about rain forest herbs.During the recent trip to Peru, she said, she did hear reports about people with AIDS flying into Iquitos for treatment.Her husband takes the herb to relieve prostate problems, she said. "He's a big believer in it and takes it every day."Peru's indigenous groups such as the Ashaninkas and Campas have known of the plant's curative properties for centuries. They even use it as a contraceptive, an attribute that has yet to be investigated.The popular herb has not escaped the notice of the business community: cat's claw has already become a highly profitable commodity, exported from Peru and marketed worldwide under 30 different brand names.In the United States, sales of cat's claw have skyrocketed since it arrived in health food stores two years ago. Labeled as both "Cat's Claw Root" and "Cat's Claw," it is sold by Vidal Vital and Peruvian Rain Forest Botanicals."There's considerable interest here, especially in the Latino community in New York," said Smart.Dr. Oscar Schuler of Peru, whose family claims to have launched cat's claw into the mainstream market, says his grandfather was cured of advanced lung cancer.He took a daily infusion, as directed by Ashaninka shamans from Oxapampa, the jungle region where he lived for many years. After a year, astonished doctors could only find a few scars on his lungs. He died 15 years later -- but of old age, claims Schuler.After his death, the Schuler family decided to market the product. But, stresses Beatriz Schuler, only after conducting seven years of research and rigorous testing in European labs. Schuler herself decided to study pharmacology to ensure she was fully conversant with the plant.Mexican actor Andres Garcia is among several patients who swear they were cured of prostate cancer after intensive treatment with cat's claw. Garcia recently flew to Peru to personally thank the Schuler family for sending him capsules of freeze-dried uncaria.Cat's claw comes in many shapes and forms: in its natural state, powdered and packed in small bags for infusions, in drops, tablets and capsules.It has become a lucrative business in the United States and Europe -- so much so that Peru might end up having to pay for a license to sell its own uncaria. In 1986, the plant's oxindalic alkaloids were patented in the United States by a group of European scientists.In the United States, cat's claw and a host of other herbal remedies might receive more attention if groups such as Act Up make an impact with a recent campaign called "Real Treatments for Real People."ACT Up argues that if major drug companies, which focus on pharmaceuticals, are not developing a drug, there is almost no money for testing. The purpose of the campaign is to pressure the federal government to commit research funds to clinical trials of promising alternative treatments."Instead of filling gaps in federal AIDS-related research, the National Institutes of Health continue to fund literally hundreds of trials of the same old toxic, ineffective retrovirals. People don't need another AZT study," an Act Up campaign handout argues.Loftus said he agrees research is needed into herbal treatments but recommends caution. "There is no such thing as a pure, risk free medicine, even one provided by nature."