Parkinson's patients find hope in herbs

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 July, 2011, 12:00am

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A Chinese herbal medicine could be effective in treating Parkinson's disease and the side effects of Western treatments used in fighting it, a university study has found.

The condition of patients treated with the herb gou teng - the stem and thorns of the gambir vine - by researchers at Hong Kong Baptist University showed significant improvements in their communication skills and moderation of symptoms such as depression and sleeping difficulty.

'The results are pleasing,' said Dr Li Min , associate professor of the university's School of Medicine who led the research team. 'Parkinson's disease is incurable with Chinese or Western medicine.'

She expects gambir vine stem could be widely used to treat the disease after the second phase of their study is completed in 2013.

The herb can be bought freely but she advised patients not to use it without a pratitioner's advice.

Parkinson's patients are usually treated with drugs such as levodopa to relieve symptoms such as stiffness and poor muscle control, but the drugs cause nausea and hallucinations.

In the research, the patients continued treatment with levodopa but took gambir vine stem simultaneously. By taking the herb the patients were able to reduce the drug dosage and thus the side effects.

However, the Chinese treatment is only suitable for patients who are classified in Chinese medical theory as having spleen deficiency.

At least half of those who volunteered to participate in the research were excluded because of this or other reasons.

Li's team confirmed the herb's function by identifying an active compound called isorhynchophylline in the herbal medicine.

It induces the self-digesting mechanism in cells, helping to clear the disease-causing protein that accumulates in nerve cells.

Li's team have applied for a US patent.

Gou teng is said to be able to cure the uncontrolled shaking associated with Parkinson's, but this was not seen in the clinical research. Li explained that this may have been because the dosage used in the study was too low. She expects that it could be achieved with higher dosages.

The study was carried out between 2007 and 2009 with HK$1 million in funding from a Chinese medicine company. Twenty-two patients took the medicine for 24 weeks. Another group of 25 patients took a placebo, without them and their doctors knowing it, to achieve a scientifically comparable result, after the psychological effects of the treatment were accounted for, said Li. The result showed no adverse effects in all treated patients.

The team is recruiting patients for the second phase of research, which will start this October. They have a HK$600,000 grant from the government but are still looking for more.

Parkinson's disease is the second most common neuro-degenerative disease, affecting around 2 per cent of people over 65 years old.

1.7m

There are at least this number of Parkinson's disease sufferers in China

- Globally, the figure is at least six million