Herbal Therapies Used by People Living With HIV: Tricosanthin

Part of A Practical Guide to Herbal Therapies for People Living With HIV

Tricosanthin is derived from the root of the Chinese herb Trichosanthes kirilowii or guo lou. The dried root was used by traditional practitioners to induce abortions and to help women expel placenta after giving birth. It is not used by traditional Chinese practitioners to treat HIV.

The protein tricosanthin was isolated from the herb in the early 1970s. A company called Genelabs dubbed it GLQ223, and it was tested as a treatment for HIV in the late 1980s. It became known as Compound Q. (Compound Q should not be confused with Co-enzyme Q10, which is a completely different substance.) In test-tube studies, Compound Q has destroyed HIV-infected cells while leaving uninfected cells intact. In those studies, the compound was shown to be effective against both infected T-lymphocytes and infected macrophages. Clinical trials of tricosanthin began in 1989 with the participation of several U.S.-based AIDS community groups. Compound Q was given intravenously at a variety of doses. Although some of the small dosing trials reported at the San Francisco AIDS Conference in 1990 seemed to suggest that compound Q might be beneficial for some people, a larger trial of 148 subjects started in 1991 showed no significant improvement with this treatment.

Compound Q causes a range of side effects, including muscle and joint pain, raised liver enzymes and flu-like symptoms. Several cases of serious neurological problems, including disorientation, hallucinations and coma, have also been reported. By the mid-1990s, interest in tricosanthin had declined. Although some herbalists and researchers continue to believe that this herb will eventually find a role in the treatment of HIV, there is currently little interest in using Trichosanthes kirilowii or compounds derived from it for this purpose. Given the plant's traditional use in women, it should clearly not be used during pregnancy.