A common plant from west Africa works as a treatment for sickle cell disease, new research has found.
Scientists at Aberystwyth University isolated a chemical in the Alchornea cordifolia plant, also known as the Christmas Bush, which could help relieve the symptoms of the life-threatening and painful disease suffered by 15,000 people in the UK.
In sufferers of sickle cell anaemia, red blood cells change from their usual soft disc shape to a curved "sickle" shape and also become sticky and hard, which means they don’t move properly around the body.
Blood is blocked from flowing, particularly to joints, the chest and abdomen, leading to severe pain, swelling of hands and feet, delayed growth and problems with eyesight, among other symptoms. It can lead to stillbirth and is also fatal in some cases.
A genetic disease, it is more common among people of African, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern descent, with over 20m people around the world affected.
In Nigeria around 150,000 children are born with sickle cell anaemia each year. Half of them are likely to die before their 10th birthday.
Juice from the plant, which grows widely across the tropical regions of Africa, has been used in a "blood tonic" as a traditional remedy for generations, but it has never been scientifically proven to work until now.
Dr Olayemi Adeniyi, a researcher at the university who suffers from the condition herself, interviewed traditional healers from south western Nigeria, who said the plant had been used for years as a treatment.
Leaves are crushed manually or blended, and can also be brewed into a tea.
Dr Adeniyi said the research had shown that quercitrin, the active ingredient in the plant, could both prevent and reverse the "sickling" caused by the disease.
She said: "Until now there has been no scientific proof of the plant’s effectiveness.
“The research is particularly important because so many people affected by sickle cell disease live below the poverty line and have no access to medicine. The plant grows in bushes and is relatively easy to grow on fertile land – all you need are seeds.
“It’s crucial that people in the countries affected, Africa in particular, hear that this plant’s benefits have now been scientifically proven. Our findings show that this is a treatment that has firm scientific foundations, not just psychological ones.”
Existing treatments are expensive, and some involve blood transfusions. It can only be cured with a stem cell or bone marrow transplant, but this is rarely done because of the risks involved.
The finding "could inform efforts directed to the development of an anti-sickling drug", the paper concluded.
The study formed part of an Aberystwyth University project looking at the scientific effectiveness of traditional and herbal remedies, which has also focused on developing new antibiotics to counter the growing problem of antimicrobial resistance.
Professor Luis Mur, who led the research, said: "We’re running out of drug leads. There is a recognition, especially with diseases, that they are evolving, and they’re evolving through misuse of antimicrobials for example, and so we need to look at new sources.
"So let’s go back to where traditional practices have actually given a hint that this particular plant or fungus has some efficacy."
The results were published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine.