Cancer bush bad for HIV sufferers

Published Dec 2, 2015


Cape Town - It is known as the “cancer bush” and has been used from historic times to treat a variety of ailments from colds and flu to diarrhoea and rheumatism - and more recently to boost the immune system.

Now researchers from the University of Stellenbosch have warned that this plant, Sutherlandia frutescens, should not be taken by anyone who is HIV-positive as research has shown it exacerbates inflammation of the central nervous system.

The cancer bush, also known as the balloon pea, is distinctive with bright orange flowers and a balloon-like pod. It is indigenous to the more arid parts of southern Africa. It is has been used historically by indigenous healers, and more recently has been commercialised and is sold dried and used to make a “tea” to be taken medicinally.

Carine Smith, head of the stress biology research group at the department of physiological at the university, said health organisations, particularly in developing countries, had promoted the use of Sutherlandia as an immune-booster for HIV-positive people before beginning antiretroviral (ARV) therapy.

However she said while earlier research had supported the benefits of taking Sutherlandia for reducing stress in healthy people, “the picture changes when an individual is infected with the HI-virus”.

The HI-virus caused chronic inflammation of the central nervous system soon after an individual became infected. This promoted neuro-degeneration and dementia.

She said their data, obtained in a cell co-culture simulation of the human blood-brain barrier, supported earlier work of the beneficial action of Sutherlandia - but only in non-HIV conditions.

“In the HIV condition, HIV-associated proteins caused more severe neuro-inflammation as more immune cells moved across the blood-brain barrier after being treated with Sutherlandia,” she said.

She said the research, published in the Journal of Negative Results in BioMedicine, did not argue against the use of Sutherlandia as originally prescribed by “indigenous knowledge practitioners”.

“Our research on plant medicines is aimed at distinguishing between populations and conditions that would most benefit from a specific plant, and those who would do better to avoid talking it at all. We therefore caution against the use of Sutherlandia frutescens at any stage post HIV-infection.”

Cape Times

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