07 December 2015

HIV+ patients should not use cancer bush

New research from Stellenbosch University shows that Sutherlandia, the cancer bush, may exacerbate inflammation of the central nervous system in HIV+ patients, rather than providing relief.


Prof Carine Smith, head of the multidisciplinary stress biology research group at the Department of Physiological Sciences at SU, says recent research has shown that the HI-virus initiates chronic inflammation of the central nervous system soon after an individual becomes infected.

“This neuro-inflammation promotes the development of neurodegeneration and dementia, a process which is thus already in progress before the roll-out of anti-retroviral (ARV) therapy.

Limiting neuro-inflammation

"The ideal therefore would be to use something to limit the extent of neuro-inflammation, especially as ARV drugs have not been designed for this purpose."

Read: Early ARV treatment prolongs life 

So far health organisations, especially in developing countries, have promoted the use of Sutherlandia frutescens as an immune-booster prior to the roll-out of ARV therapy.

But while earlier research supports the benefits of Sutherlandia for alleviating stress in healthy individuals, the picture changes when an individual is infected with the HI-virus.

Prof Smith explains: “Our data, obtained in a validated cell co-culture simulation of the human blood-brain barrier, support earlier work of the beneficial action of Sutherlandia but only in non-HIV conditions.

Read: Beetroot, garlic, onions and Aids 

"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.”

The results of this research have recently been published in an article “Sutherlandia frutescens may exacerbate HIV-associated neuroinflammation” in the Journal of Negative Results in BioMedicine.

Prof. Smith says their research by no means argues 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.”

Read: How safe is herbal medicine?

“We therefore caution against the use of Sutherlandia frutescens at any stage post HIV-infection,” she concludes.

Her research group is, however, finding promising results on the effect of grape seed extracts on inflammation, especially after muscle injury, as well as neuro-inflammation. Clinical trials on the effect of grape seed extract on healthy individuals will start early in 2016. 

Read more: 

Docs unsure about herbal remedies   

When herbal remedies are dangerous 

African traditional medicine: better than pills?


Ask the Expert

HIV/Aids expert

Dr Sindisiwe van Zyl qualified at the University of Pretoria in 2005. She is a patients' rights activist and loves using social media to teach about HIV. She is in private practice in Johannesburg.

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