Vietnamese herb aids in various health benefits

By David Templeton / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Returning to one’s native country for a visit can provide a few surprises, as Ngoc Thai came to realize.

When the Allegheny General Hospital transplant surgeon returned to Vietnam, he met an uncle for the first time in his family’s home village of Pleiku. His uncle, Tinh, would soon pique the doctor’s curiosity by using a local herb that he said lowered his blood-sugar levels to help him control his type 2 diabetes.

Tinh routinely gathers the wild plant — which Dr. Thai described simply as a green plant with green leaves sometimes used to make tea — then processes the plant to isolate an extract, which can be turned into a powder. When his blood-sugar levels rise to unhealthy levels, Tinh consumes the extract, with what appeared to be beneficial results.

“I think the use of herbal remedies is much more common in Asia and India than it is here,” Dr. Thai said. “A lot are used commonly and most of them I don’t care about and ignore. But for some reason with this one, there was something compelling about it.”

The herb, designated only as NT619, shows no productive hits on the Internet. People in Asia do use Tianqi, a combination of 10 herbs that reportedly reduces blood sugar. But this is not Tianqi, Dr. Thai said.

The director of the hospital’s center for abdominal transplantation thought the extract was intriguing enough to bring the herbal powder back to Pittsburgh and put it through the scientific rigor necessary to prove whether or not it actually lowered his uncle’s blood-sugar. He said he is aware of the many claims about natural remedies for common ailments, but many show no benefits when tested.

This test turned interesting.

In obese rats with type 2 diabetes the herb produced results so impressive that Dr. Thai presented his findings this month during the American Diabetes Association Scientific Sessions in San Francisco.

“When given this extract, their blood glucose levels would go from more than 200 (mg/dL) — from 250 to 300 — down to 100 to 150,” he said. Normal blood sugar levels in humans range from 70 to 100 mg/dL.

“So (100 to 150) is not a normal level but it does help. We don’t know if it will work on humans but we do know that it is safe.”

His uncle’s herb also produced other notable benefits for the laboratory rats.

Their blood pressure — taken by putting a blood-pressure cuff around the tail rather than the leg — went from 14 0/100 to 12 0/80 and as low as 11 0/70 mm Hg. The upper limit of blood pressure for people with diabetes, according to the ADA, is 14 0/80 with recommendations that treatment bring it down to 120/80. The herb also lowers cholesterol levels.

“It is pretty impressive,” Dr. Thai said of the avuncular herb. “What’s so compelling for me is that a single substance can potentially treat three major diseases — diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol — and do it naturally.”

Other advantages include the fact that the herb already is safe for human consumption. People in Vietnam have used the herb for tea for hundreds of years, even though it isn’t commonly consumed. Dr. Thai said he even has consumed it. “It makes people feel better — feel lighter,” he said.

Now the goal is testing the herb’s impact in humans, with plans already in the works.

“We have to sit back and debate whether we should try this treatment in humans, have clinical trials in humans,” Dr. Thai said. “Second we have to find the (biological) mechanism” that occurs that causes blood sugar to decline. Third, we have to determine what the active ingredient is.

“We have a broad-stroke framework to do this,” he said.

Dr. Thai said he hopes to have some conclusions within six months concerning the biological mechanism that allows the herb to lower sugar levels in the rodents:

“We hope to start a trial in humans very soon.”