Is Devil's Claw the key to treating arthritis?
Aug 17, 2009 - 3:48:01 PM

Deep in Africa's Kalahari desert lies the Devil's Claw, a plant that may hold the key to effective treatments for arthritis, tendonitis and other illnesses that affect millions each year.

In the US, Devil's Claw extracts are in phase-II clinical trials for the treatment of hip and knee arthritis. Other promising uses are not far behind.

But while the demand for these beneficial compounds is increasing, the supply of natural Devil's Claw is dwindling, thanks to years of drought, which have pushed the plant towards extinction.

Scientists have now successfully reproduced active ingredients in the Devil's Claw. Their technique may eventually lead to the development of 'bio-factories' that could produce huge quantities of rare plant extracts quickly and at little cost.

Milen I. Georgiev, a scientist who organises and teaches environment protection courses and schools in Bulgaria, pointed out that for thousands of years, native populations in southern Africa have used the Devil's Claw as a remedy for a huge number of ailments, including fever, diarrhoea and blood diseases.

Today, there are dozens of medicinal and herbal products around the world that are based on chemicals derived from the plant.

In particular, studies suggest that two chemicals -- iridoid glycosides harpagoside and harpagide -- may have beneficial effects in the treatment of degenerative rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, tendonitis, and other conditions, Georgiev said.

'In Germany, 57 pharmaceutical products based on Devil's Claw, marketed by 46 different companies, have cumulative sales volumes alone worth more than $40 million,' Georgiev noted.

Currently, more than 25 percent of all prescribed medicines used in the industrialised countries are derived either directly or indirectly from plants, many of which are rare and sometimes endangered.

Hairy root, an infectious plant disease caused by the soil bacteria Agrobacterium rhizogenes, is at the core of a promising new technique that could one day lead to 'biofactories' that produce medicines derived from rare plants in huge quantities at a low cost.

Georgiev notes that hairy roots are a big improvement over traditional, greenhouse-based plant culturing. Georgiev and team are the first to induce hairy root cultures of Devil's Claw.

They took the plant's roots and infected them with the A. rhizogenes soil bacteria -- a natural genetic engineer -- to create a system of hairy roots to produce the plant's key medicinal chemicals, says a release of the American Chemical Society -.

These findings were reported at the 238th national meeting of the ACS.

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