By David N. Leff

Besides meditation and mood music, people who are into New Age lifestyles espouse alternative medicine ¿ especially, these days, herbal remedies.

Those attracted to these organic therapies tend to suffer from such chronic diseases as cancer and rheumatoid arthritis (RA), and have run out of relief from approved medical treatments.

The myriad products lining the shelves of health food stores make no specific claims on their labels to therapeutic effects, to avoid running afoul of the FDA. Rather, they tout generic promises of improved ¿wellness,¿ enhanced ¿vigor,¿ prolonged longevity and renewed enjoyment of living.

High on this array of bottled placebo is an extract of a common dietary substance ¿ green tea (Thea sinsensis). One of the world¿s largest purveyors of such plant products, Mitsui Norin Co., of Toyko, labels it ¿antioxidant (tea polyphenols).¿

Scientists in many countries have long suspected that polyphenols play a role in combating cancer and cardiovascular disease. Among them is cancer researcher Hasan Mukhtar, at the Case Western Reserve University of Medicine, in Cleveland. After 15 years of probing this green-tea cancer connection at the molecular level, Mukhtar added RA to the list of usual suspects. ¿In some way in the back of my head,¿ he told BioWorld Today, ¿was the concept that both of them are inflammatory disorders. And since we¿ve established green tea¿s connection to cancer, we thought it worth looking at arthritis.¿

That look led to his paper in the current Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), dated April. 13, 1999. Its title: ¿Prevention of collagen-induced arthritis in mice by a polyphenolic fraction of green tea.¿

¿The novelty of our project,¿ he said, ¿is that we have been researching the polyphenols for cancer, and other investigators for cardiovascular diseases. Nobody had assessed them for arthritis. Now, we have found that animals that have been receiving green tea developed lower incidence, and milder symptoms, of arthritis. If this can be translated to the human population, it will mean that people who have been consuming green tea will be protected by its antioxidants from the onset and severity of [RA].¿

He pointed out that the ¿concentrations of the polyphenolic extract that we have given to animals equate to four cups of green tea consumption by the human population. People have been drinking it for many generations, with no documented side effects.¿ Mukhtar cited ¿anecdotal evidence, indicating that the Oriental world, the Indian world and the Asian world have a lower incidence of [RA] than the Western world, which does not consume green tea.¿ He noted that, in the U.S., this debilitating disease has been diagnosed in more than two million people.

There is no cure for RA ¿ only palliative pain-killers and anti-inflammatory drugs, which slow joint damage.

Scotching Arthritis With Spiked Virtual Tea

Second only to water, tea is the most widely imbibed beverage on earth. Two out of every ten consumers drink green tea; the rest, black tea. (See BioWorld Today, June 5, 1997, p. 5.)

In controlled, in vivo experiments, Mukhtar and his co-authors spiked the drinking water of arthritic mice with their lab-extracted, antioxidant-rich green tea polyphenolic fraction. The animals were then turned into faithful mimics of RA by injections into their tails of collagen II. This potent antigen raised autoantibodies that afflicted the rodents with the swollen, painful, eroded joints that mark authentic human RA. (See BioWorld Today, Dec. 23, 1999, p. 1.)

Of the 18 mice that lapped up the extract solution as their only source of water, only eight (44 percent) developed mild, late-onset RA, while 17 of the 18 control animals on straight water (94 percent) came down promptly with severe cases, during 40 to 85 days of post-treatment observation.

All of the latter cohort suffered the severe, deforming arthritis involving the entire paw, and extensive cartilage and bone erosion.

At the cellular level, the joints of polyphenol-treated mice revealed lower levels of the classical RA inflammatory cytokines, tumor necrosis factor and interferon-gamma, plus diminished RA-specific immunoglobulin-G.

¿Polyphenols are abundant in the plant kingdom,¿ Mukhtar observed. ¿They¿re found, for instance, in nuts, grapes and all kinds of berries. But these particular phenolics, called cathechins, are limited to tea, where they are responsible for color, odor and taste. Now, we¿re getting close to understanding that these inhibit a variety of genes, and their expression, in inflammatory responses.¿

But clinical trials of the green tea extract for treating or preventing RA aren¿t all that close. For one thing, the Case Western co-authors plan first to compare that product against natural green tea itself, for efficacy

¿I think it will be prudent to initiate human studies only after we understand a little bit more about the antioxidant mechanisms,¿ Mukhtar said.

Tea For All

Also on his group¿s agenda, Mukhtar said, is ¿determining first of all that the extract has no side effects; next identifying the targets that are inhibiting it, and then what dose levels are required. Those kinds of questions have to be answered in the animal model system. We are pursuing them right now.¿

Mukhtar estimates the initial Phase I human trials will take place ¿five years from now.¿

In the meantime, he encourages people to drink green tea. ¿There is a humongous amount of data available which says that it prevents cancer, and ¿ now that we have evaluated it ¿ arthritis. Nobody has shown any toxicity, so it doesn¿t take a rocket scientist to recommend it.

¿I think,¿ he concluded, ¿with this data, we are in the process of defining the real entity. Once we have identified that as a lead compound, some biotech company could develop analagous compounds that have superior activity. If you find such an interested company, give us their phone number.¿