YOU'VE no doubt heard about the Guinea Hen Weed and its potential for curing certain types of cancer, including those of the prostate, brain, breast, skin, lung and bladder.
But that's only half the story. The weed, which grows wild in Jamaica, is also proving to be effective against degenerative diseases such as arthritis, diabetes, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, according to the scientist driving the research, Dr Lawrence Williams, a consultant at the Scientific Research Council (SRC).
Williams isolated a compound from the plant, called dibenzyl trisulphide (DTS), which he said is more potent than the other forms in which the weed exists on the market. He currently has a group of about 40 people using the compound — as well as a liqueur made from soaking the leaves of the plant in wine — in local trials, and said that the formulation was proving to be "very effective".
"I isolated a pure compound — the DTS — which is far more powerful than the capsules made from the guinea hen weed. When DTS is absorbed through the intestine walls and binds to the albumin, the anti-cancer properties go up 2,500-fold," he told the Jamaica Observer.
Albumin is a protein in the blood which transports hormones and fatty acids, regulates acidity levels, among other things.
"It's very effective against prostate and breast cancer," Dr Williams said.
Outside of that, however, Dr Williams said that DTS had implications for diseases associated with ageing.
"The key breakthrough is that DTS can reprogramme the thymus. We think it is going to change the face of medicine," he told the Sunday Observer in a recent interview. "It could be a broad spectrum cure for disease," he added.
The thymus is an organ in the chest which produces T-lymphocytes — a group of white blood cells which are critical in the adaptive immune system.
Perhaps the best news is that the DTS formulation zeros in on cancer cells and does not attack healthy cells, unlike other forms of treatment, like chemotherapy. "Research showed further that the compounds in anamu (the South American name for Guinea Hen Weed) were able to differentiate between normal cells and cancer cells, killing only the cancerous cells. In addition, other substances in the herb stimulate the body's natural defences," according to excerpts from a scientific paper on the wall in Dr Williams' lab.
"DTS is not toxic to normal cells, but any cell in the body that is pathological it will destroy, so it is selective mode of action that the DTS has when it is isolated from the Guinea Hen Weed," he stated.
"It doesn't seem to be toxic, which means there are no side effects," the scientist continued.
Williams, who is credited with developing the Bovine Serum Albumin assay — which replaces the use of animals in laboratory testing, and which was instrumental in developing the DTS — is now seeking to raise US$20 million for clinical trials and is partnering with an American scientist to that end.
"Within four to six months after the clinical trials are over, we will have the compound readily available on the market," Williams said. "In six months DTS will destroy melanoma, lymphoma and will restore bone marrow function," he added.
German professor of chemistry at the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart Dr Wolfgang Kraus, who supervised Williams during his post doctoral research in Germany between 2001 and 2003, said that both developments are very promising, but was cautious in declaring them breakthroughs.
"The work Dr Lawrence started more than 10 years ago as the first Jamaican fellow of the Av Humboldt Foundation (two sequential fellowships, very rare case) and has continued very successfully up to now is promising to meet the target as application in medicine. But there will be still a long way to go because extensive and expensive large-scale tests have to be carried out," he said.
"The results of these tests will tell us whether the BSA assay and DTS are really groundbreaking. I am optimistic (that they will be). But this will not be tomorrow," he stressed.
Asked whether he thought the work had the potential for a Nobel Prize, Dr Kraus said "the academic community may decide some day about international recognition".
For his part, Dr Williams has already won a few international recognitions and awards for his contribution to the field of science. Among them are a nomination for a Nobel Prize (2001), the United Cultural Convention's International Peace Prize (2003), Jamaica's Silver Musgrave Medal (2011), and a nomination for the American Biographical Institute's Man of the Year designation (2010).
The Musgrave medal citation said that the award, granted by the Institute of Jamaica, was for "innovative research on the isolation of chemical compounds that have pesticidal actions and medicinal properties".
Dr Williams, meanwhile, disclosed that his discovery of the DTS was by-the-way.
"We were looking at pesticide values and logically ran into it," he said.