Yvonne Chin, Staff Reporter
WE DRAW it, we dry it, we drink it and have even made chutney from it.
Now sorrel, Jamaica's favourite Christmas beverage could be in for bigger things.
Research at Northern Caribbean University (NCU) in Mandeville shows that sorrel, which is grown in three varieties in Jamaica, could be a treatment or cure for certain types of cancer.
NCU lecturer and cancer researcher, Dr. Juliet Penrod initiated the study in 1998 and later supervised Patrice Gordon who looked at the effects of sorrel and garlic on certain types of cancers for her Masters thesis.
Dr. Penrod told The Gleaner that the idea to study sorrel as a possible treatment for cancer just came to her "out of the blue". She says, "It was when I started to go through the literature that I realized that everything about it was useful, and when I learnt about the nutritional properties of the seed I decided to look at both the seed and the calyx (the outer red section)."
Mrs. Gordon, who is also a lecturer in the Department of Biology Chemistry and Medical Technology at the university, completed her thesis on sorrel last December and presented her findings to members of the University and the public during a Faculty Forum on Tuesday, March 19.
Mrs. Gordon said that lung and liver cancer cells were used in the study and different types of cells were treated separately with extracts from garlic (Allium sativum), and the seed and calyx of sorrel (Hibiscus Sabdariffa). Normal cells were also treated with the extracts. The tests were done repeatedly on the samples and the effects observed at various intervals.
The researchers observed that H (liver cancer cells) which were treated with sorrel extracts decreased in vitality and dramatic cell death occurred. She further explained. "We also noticed that when liver cancer cells were treated with extracts from the sorrel seed the result was even quicker and more dramatic." The sorrel extract however had minimal effect on lung cancer cells and normal cells.
When the tests were done with garlic it was observed that garlic extracts had a marked effect on lung cancer cells. The cells lost vitality and overtime most of them died. She said however that garlic took a longer time to affect the cells and had little or no effect on liver cancer cells.
Head of the Department Of Biology, Chemistry and Medical Technology Dr. Paul Gyles who initiated the garlic section of the research said that "these findings meant that NCU had positioned itself to be a contributor to the body of knowledge on cancer research. "This," he added, "is significant for Jamaica. It also sets the stage for further research work such as clinical trials to be done," he told The Gleaner.
The head of The Scientific Research Council (SRC) Dr. Audia Barnett responded to news of the finding saying: "This could be the beginning of something great." She noted that while the results would have to be verified. "The Scientific Research Council stands ready to collaborate in further research because we think sorrel is a winner."
She said the SRC had already established a databank on sorrel. "We are also collaborating with the Department of Chemistry at the University of the West Indies (UWI) on a study to get additional information about the beneficial effect which sorrel might have to human health especially as it operates from a cellular level," she said. The researchers are studying certain chemicals known as anthocyanins which act as antioxidants.
He noted that NCU's findings on sorrel could have implications for sorrel production, for example boosting production. Last year Jamaica produced 841.47 tonnes of sorrel. Clarendon, the main sorrel producer, grew 247.3 tonnes. Jamaica grows three varieties of sorrel, a common variety, which bears in the first and last quarter of the year, a blood red variety which bears all year round and was introduced in the last two years and a white sorrel.