As UH researchers examine whether noni can alleviate cancer symptoms, they are paving the way for a rich field of ethnobotanical studies.
Sometimes good things come from bad smells. That’s the hypothesis oncologist Brian Issell is testing at the University of Hawaii’s Cancer Research Center. The bad smell in question emanates from noni, the notoriously odoriferous tropical fruit touted as the latest wonder cure. After a number of his patients claimed noni extract made them feel better, Issell thought it might be interesting to test their claims objectively. In 2001 he applied for and won a $375,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to test the efficacy of taking freeze-dried, encapsulated noni to fight the side effects of cancer, such as nausea.
Scientists and doctors have long studied ethnobotanical cures to find effective drugs. Anticancer medications from the yew tree, the periwinkle and the may apple have proven quite successful. With a diverse array of land and marine organisms to pick through, Hawaii could well prove an ethnobotanical treasure trove. “Hawaii is a wonderful place to check these things out, because of the prevalence of these practices and the unique flora,” says Issell.
To that end, School of Medicine Dean Edwin Cadman established the Department of Complementary and Alternative Medicine in 2002. The department pursues research into the efficacy of ethnobotanical and folk remedies. The noni trials, which employ four people at UH, represent the first collaborations between the CRC and the new department. At this point, Issell is still testing dosages that patients can take before they suffer side effects or before they see diminishing improvements in debilitating symptoms.
However, Issell has yet to see any signs of negative side effects. Although he won’t elaborate on the details, Issell says that, in some cases, the noni appears to have helped. “We have seen some suggestions there may be some beneficial effects in function and quality of life,” he says. Issell says he is also closely tracking any chemical changes apparent in the noni takers. Eventually, if the trials prove successful in correlating pure noni ingestion with alleviation of symptoms, Issell will take the plant over to sophisticated biochemists at the UH, who might start looking for compounds that could be turned into drugs.
That’s generally a difficult task involving painstaking trial and error testing and one that rarely returns usable results. However, should Issell’s cohorts isolate and patent a compound that a pharmaceutical company then licenses, the university could receive significant royalties should that compound turn into a marketable drug. Says Issell, “These cultural remedies are clearly valuable to us. We owe it to the world to figure out if they work in a clinical setting.”