Matalafi: Scientists say traditional medicine plant could be the natural Ibuprofen – and treat cancer and diabetes

The Psychotria insularum plant, or matalafi in Samoan, has long been used in traditional medicine. A new study found it is as effective as ibuprofen in lowering inflammation, and could even have other medical uses.

 

“Matalafi is used in two ways in Samoa — to treat illnesses attributed to ghosts, and to treat various forms of inflammation,” researchers said.

 

The leaves of the Psychotria insularum plant, known in Samoa as matalafi, have been used to treat inflammation associated with fever, body, aches, respiratory infections and other ailments for generations. The plant is native to South Pacific regions.

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Matalafi: Scientists say traditional medicine plant could be the natural Ibuprofen - and treat cancer and diabetes
In a new study published in the journal PNAS, researchers tested matalafi on mammalian cells and detailed how it produces its anti-inflammatory effects.

The anti-inflammatory activity was found to be strikingly similar to that of Ibuprofen.

New research suggests a plant widely used in Samoan traditional medicine could be as effective at reducing inflammation as the popular anti-inflammatory drug ibuprofen.

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“Matalafi is used in two ways in Samoa — to treat illnesses attributed to ghosts, and to treat various forms of inflammation,” Seeseei Molimau-Samason, the study’s author and researcher with the Scientific Research Organization of Samoa, said in a statement.

 

In a new study published in the journal PNAS, researchers tested matalafi on mammalian cells and detailed how it produces its anti-inflammatory effects.

 

Researchers found that matalafi interacts with iron in the body. Compounds identified within matalafi bind to iron in a process called iron chelation, which is the removal of excess iron.

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The anti-inflammatory activity was found to be strikingly similar to that of ibuprofen.

Matalafi: Scientists say traditional medicine plant could be the natural Ibuprofen - and treat cancer and diabetes

Iron chelators like matalafi could also be potentially used to treat common diseases like cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.

 

“This raises the possibility for applications of matalafi beyond traditional use,” Helen Woolner, a co-author of the study, said in a statement.

 

When Seeseei Molimau-Samasoni first started investigating the benefits of a plant used in traditional Samoan medicine, she was skeptical anything would come of it.

 

She knew that her people had used matalafi for hundreds of years to treat aches, pains, swelling, fevers and more. And she also knew that modern pharmaceuticals have benefited greatly from the contributions of traditional Chinese and Indian medicines.

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“But those medicines were, in my opinion, a lot older than Samoan traditional medicine,” Molimau-Samasoni, manager of the plants and post-harvest technologies division at the Scientific Research Organisation of Samoa, told As It Happens.

 

“So I was a little bit skeptical, myself, about our traditional medicine. But I think in the end of my research, I had to eat my own words and admit that there is great potential in Samoan traditional medicine.”

 

Leaves from matalafi — also known as the Psychotria insularum plant — proved to be as effective at reducing inflammation as ibuprofen, a common over-the-counter anti-inflammatory, Molimau-Samasoni and her colleagues found.

 

What’s more, the researchers theorize the plant may also prove beneficial for a wide range of other conditions, including Parkinson’s and cancer, though further research is needed to confirm that.

 

To study matalafi, Molimau-Samasoni first teamed up with local practitioners of traditional medicine to harvest the plant in a sustainable way.

 

“I got mixed reactions from traditional healers. I had traditional healers who were not supportive of my research, who did not want their bread and butter to be put under the microscope in a sense,” she said.

 

“But I also had traditional healers who were very progressive in the way that they thought. They wanted to have science prove that the traditional medicine is working. So those traditional healers were more supportive and forthcoming, and they were even keen to share their traditional knowledge with me, and they even gave me support in terms of looking and finding the plants that I needed.”

Matalafi: Scientists say traditional medicine plant could be the natural Ibuprofen - and treat cancer and diabetes
Seeseei Molimau-Samasoni is the manager of the plants and post-harvest technologies division at the Scientific Research Organisation of Samoa.

The researchers tested the plant’s anti-inflammatory effects on lab-grown immune cells, and found it just as potent as ibuprofen at reducing swelling.



They also discovered that matalafi has the ability to reduce excess iron in cells. That means it could have potential as a treatment in a wide array of diseases that produce iron imbalances, including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and some cancers.

 

It could also potentially be used to treat people who experience iron overload during blood transfusions, Molimau-Samasoni said.

 

“Our research so far has only investigated the anti-inflammatory activity of matalafi, but from that research, we’ve made educated extrapolations of our data,” Molimau-Samasoni said. “There’s more research to be done still.”

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