Bitter Melon (Cerasse)

Bitter Melon (momordica charantia), native to Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean area. It was introduced to Brazil by African slaves and has since spread as far north as the West Indies, Florida and Texas where it grows wild. Bitter melon fruit and leaves is used medicinally throughout India, Asia, Africa and South America. Cerasee also grows wild in Asia where it is used medicinally, and as a vegetable. The fruits, leaves, seeds and roots have also been used for a range of conditions; treatment of diabetes, intestinal colic, peptic ulcers, worms, malaria, constipation, dysmenorrhea, eczema, gout, jaundice, kidney stone, leprosy, leucorrhoea, piles, pneumonia, psoriasis, rheumatism, chickenpox, measles and scabies. Externally, bitter melon is used for the rapid healing of wounds. In the West Indies it is believed to be a blood cleanser and sugar control agent for diabetes. It is widely accepted that a fair consumption of this tea on a weekly basis will prevent colds, flu, headaches, jaundice, and stomach ache. Cerasse is extremely bitter, and a ghastly tasting but beneficial Jamaican herb.

Cerasse tea may be sweetened with honey or maple syrup. This medicinal herb which is used in Jamaica and many other tropical and sub-tropical countries around the world is still revered by many.

The bush grows wild, unaided by human device. Though it produces pretty bright, yellow flowers and an orange-coloured fruit, it is often viewed as no more than a nuisance, creeping through the garden. Tea brewed from the leaves is popular among rural folk but considered too bitter by most Jamaicans.

Traditional Indian, Chinese and African pharmacopeia, however, for centuries have appreciated the value of this vine-type plant cerasse (also called Bitter melon, Karela, Balsam pear) has pride of place as a laxative, anthelminthic and an abortifacient. Reports are that even in some of the most modern hospitals in India, cerasse is dispensed so confident are their doctors about the herb's positive effects on diabetics.

In more recent times, scientists have identified and extracted several active proteins from cerasse including MAP-30, alpha-momorcharin and beta-momorcharin which have indicated putative value as anti-HIV agents.

The series of proteins alpha and beta momorcharins were isolated by the researcher T. B. Ng at the Chinese Medicinal Material Research Centre of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and he found that these proteins have anti-HIV activity. Alpha momorcharin was also found to be an abortifacient and tumuor suppressive.

More recently Sylvia Lee-Huang, a biochemist at the New York University (NYU) School of Medicine, extracted another protein MAP-30 (momordica anti-viral protein of 30 kDaltons) which also has anti-HIV activity. It appears, according to Lee-Huang's work, that MAP-30 can block the infection of T-lymphocytes and monocytes by HIV and can also inhibit the replication of HIV in already infected cells in vitro. The research also indicates that MAP-30 appears to have limited toxic effect on the uninfected (healthy) cells.

For anti-HIV 'treatment', the cerasse is liquefied and consumed either as a juice or as a retained enema. Unripe fruits, seeds, leaves and stems of the plant are used interchangeably to obtain the juice. No carefully-monitored clinical trials using the herb as treatment for HIV/AIDS could be found but the literature documents research (Zhang, 1992) of individual cases where cerasse is reported to have improved CD4 count (in blood) of patients with HIV. (The HIV infects CD4 cells, preventing them from functioning normally that is, helping the body's immune system to fight infection. As HIV/AIDS progresses, the number of CD4 cells decreases; normally there are about 800 to 1,200 CD4 cells per cubic millimeter of blood.)

In one case, there was an HIV-positive male with a CD4 count of 658, % CD4 of 35 and a CD4/CD8 ratio of 1.21. His condition worsened to a CD4 count of 480, % CD4 of 32, and CD4/CD8 ratio of 0.91. He went on cerasse after hearing from a family friend that it was used to treat leukaemia. Three years later his condition improved considerably CD4 count was 1,120, % CD4 was 41 and his CD4/CD8 ratio was 1.27. It is reported that the patient experienced no side effects from the use of cerasse.

This patient, who lived in Los Angeles at the time, shared his experience with cerasse, and about 100 other persons living with HIV/AIDS in that city went on the herb.

If cerasse passes the test under well-structured clinical trials, this could have wide implications for HIV treatment especially in developing countries where the prevalence rate of HIV/AIDS is dramatically increasing, cerasse is ubiquitous and scarce funds cannot be allocated to purchase the expensive anti-retroviral drugs now on the market. Who will take up the challenge of further research?

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