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Beating naturally

In the laboratory, a compound of medicinal plants stops arrhythmia that kills victims of myocardial infarct


At the end of last year, researcher Vera Pontieri, from the Clinical Emergencies Laboratory of the School of Medicine of the University of São Paulo (USP), was surprised to see that the use of a Brazilian plant medicine sold with the commercial name of Catuama succeeded in controlling the arrhythmia that was affecting the heart of a rabbit during an experiment, thus preventing an imminent cardiac arrest. The shock was such that the test was repeated several times in more controlled situations, with a detailed monitoring of the hearts beats of the animals. The result was always the same. In two minutes, the hearts stopped fibrillating”, says physician Augusto Scalabrini Neto, another researcher from the laboratory. “No known drug does that.”

Ventricular fibrillation is a kind of arrhythmia in which several cardiac fibers contract in a disorderly way, preventing the blood from being pumped effectively by the heart. This arrhythmia is responsible for 90% of immediate deaths after acute myocardial infarct in humans. The only known treatment for correcting it, with a 30% success rate, if adopted up to five minutes after the infarction, is to apply an electric shock to the patient’s thorax, with an apparatus known as a defibrillator. The scientists from São Paulo still regard it as too premature to make any forecast about the potential use of this plant medicine, which is sold today in syrup or capsule form, as a kind of sexual energizer, to prevent this kind of arrhythmia. “But we are going to carry on with research into the product”, guarantees Irineu Velasco, a director of the School of Medicine and also involved in the study.

Produced by Laboratório Catarinense, a Brazilian industrial concern located in Joinville, Catuama is a natural compound invented over 15 years ago. Four plants found in Brazilian forests going into its formulation: guarana (Paullinia cupana ), muira puama (Ptychopetalum olacoides ), ginger (Zingiber officinale ) and a particular species of catuaba (Trichilia catigua ). As it is a plant medicine with an indeterminate number of substances acting and interacting in its formulation, the researchers do not aspire to find the active principle of the mixture of herbs that seems to work with fibrillation. “We do not know what is acting on the arrhythmia, and there is little chance of our discovering it”, Scalabrini comments.

Recent studies carried out by João Batista Calixto, from the Pharmacology Department of the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC), and a specialist in plant medicine, show that the product is safe, non-toxic, and really brings some benefits. “Catuama produces vasodilatation, and this effect is mediated by the release of nitric acid”, explains Calixto. “It also has a long-lasting analgesic action and causes relaxation in the cavernous body of the penis in animals and humans as well.” Up to this moment, four patent requests have been filed for the product, one of which now accepted in Brazil and in the United States. Other research by Calixto has also raised indications that this natural preparation may have antidepressive and antioxidant effects, besides preventing the building up of plaques in the arteries.