Written by Nikko Batalla
Illustration by Anikka Borja
Published 2020 December 16
Do you ever just think how some superheroes in films we watch, like Superman or Mr. Incredible or Captain Marvel, are able to lift very heavy objects or destroy very big and strong villains with just the tip of their fingers? What would happen if they use their whole fist, if not their whole body, to fight off everything the main antagonist could throw at them? They would be unstoppable. Well, this is what’s happening in the Philippines right now.
The pandemic has exhausted so much from everyone in the world. It feels like every day, the news is getting worse and worse, but albeit the virus has ruined so many things in our society, our government leaders are still trying to find ways to alleviate the current situation. According to CNN Philippines, DOST Secretary Fortunato de la Peña stated in an interview, last July 2020, that they are currently conducting studies on the potential of tawa-tawa, together with lagundi and virgin coconut oil, as a remedy or supplement against COVID-19. The research is mainly focused on the preventive approach, so that patients diagnosed with the disease won’t develop more severe symptoms. Being a tropical country with rich biodiversity, this could unlock the potential superpower the Philippines could have to fight off diseases, such as COVID-19. Imagine all the possibilities our botanical superheroes could have, and they literally grow everywhere.
Filipino research on the pharmaceutical benefits of tawa-tawa is no longer novel. Many biological chemicals are responsible for why tawa-tawa is still being used as traditional medicine today. It’s most renowned as a treatment against dengue.
The main germ responsible for causing dengue is called the dengue virus or DENV. This virus belongs to a group called the flaviviruses, and this group causes numerous nervous system diseases in the body. Disease vectors, factors that help spread the disease, include 2 kinds of mosquitoes, the Aedes aegypti, and the Aedes albopictus, which are mosquito species prevalent in the tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world. There are currently 4 kinds of DENV and each is slightly different from one another. In contrast, the main pathogen causing COVID-19 is the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 or SARS-CoV-2. It belongs to a group, the coronaviruses, and causes respiratory system diseases. Its main disease vector is humans, since the virus travels from human to human through tiny water droplets that enter the mouth, eyes, and nose. It is currently present in almost all parts of the world, infecting mainly the boreal regions.
The biology of DENV is composed of 3 parts – an inner case or capsid, a membrane, and an envelope, and at the center of the virus are genes, the deadly part, known as RNA. Imagine a Ferrero Rocher chocolate ball: the rough, outer mix of chocolate and hazelnut is the envelope of the virus. The crunchy, thin, inner, hazelnut/chocolate shell is the membrane covering the whole capsid, or in the case of the confection, the soft chocolate inside. The thick and inner chocolate layer, or capsid, is then covering the whole hazelnut at the very center – the RNA.
The SARS-Cov-2 is a bit different from DENV, it has one extra part that the dengue virus doesn’t have – spikes. The structure of the coronavirus has 4 parts, a membrane, a capsid, an envelope, and spikes. At the center of the virus, just like the DENV, is an RNA. This time, try imagining a rambutan fruit: the outer spikes are like the spikes of the coronavirus, the red skin at the surface of the fruit is the envelope, and the white thin covering below the red skin, which separates the outer shell from the fleshy part of the rambutan, is the membrane. That fleshy part which we eat is the capsid of the virus, and the very hard and bitter seed is the RNA.
Some Filipino scientists were able to prove that tawa-tawa was effective in killing and destroying 2 out of the 4 kinds of DENV viruses, and they found out the reason why. They determined that water and tea solutions of tawa-tawa had anti-dengue properties – which could be associated with the folkloric tradition of using the plants as a remedy for patients with dengue. They were also able to extract precious phytochemicals, chemicals that come from plants, of the herb. Nine (9) different chemicals were isolated and obtained from the plant; the scientists confirmed that at least one of the nine compounds were responsible for the anti-dengue power of tawa-tawa.
Another group of Filipino scientists were able to determine the anti-thrombocytopenic properties, the power of the plant to stop platelet loss, of tawa-tawa. This means that they were able to prove that tawa-tawa was able to reduce the loss of platelets in the blood, which is one of the most important signs on determining how severe the dengue disease is in the body. These scientists also isolated the chemicals found in the plant and found nearly the same components of the separate research stated above.
Thus, the reasoning why tawa-tawa is so successful is because both anti-viral, the destroying of the dengue virus, and anti-thrombocytopenic, the reduction of platelet loss, properties of the plant work together in preventing the disease to progress. The DOST is now conducting clinical trials on the efficacy of tawa-tawa in preventing the onset of severe symptoms of COVID-19. An inference on why tawa-tawa is being used as a potential remedy for COVID-19 is because both flaviviruses and coronaviruses are an enveloped kind of virus, and are nearly structurally the same.
Being a country of diverse fauna and flora, we have so many resources that have so much medicinal potential. But without proper research, they will only stay as that – potential. In order for the Philippines to fully unlock its superpowers, light should be given to more Filipino scientists and the researches they are conducting, imagine all the possibilities the future of our country holds.
- CNN Philippines Staff. DOST: Tawa-tawa among natural medicines being studied as additional treatment for COVID-19 [Internet]. Manila (Philippines): CNN Philippines; 2020, Jul 18 [cited 2020 Dec 1]; [about 2 screens]. Available from https://www.cnn.ph/news/2020/7/18/Tawa-tawa-among-natural-medicines-additional-treatment-coronavirus.html
- Diamond MS, Pierson TC. Molecular Insight into Dengue Virus Pathogenesis and Its Implications for Disease Control. Cell. 2015 Jul 30 [cited 2020 Dec 2];162(3):488-92. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2015.07.005. PMID: 26232221; PMCID: PMC4522276.
- Adedokun KA, Olarinmoye AO, Mustapha JO, Kamorudeen RT. A close look at the biology of SARS-CoV-2, and the potential influence of weather conditions and seasons on COVID-19 case spread. Infectious Diseases of Poverty. 2020, Jun 26 [cited 2020 Dec]; 9(1):1-5.
- Tayone WC, Tayone JC, Hashimoto M. Isolation and structure elucidation of potential Anti-Dengue metabolites from Tawa-Tawa (Euphorbia hirta Linn.). Walailak Journal of Science and Technology (WJST). 2014 [cited 2020 Dec 1];11(10):825-32.
- Philippine Council for Health Research and Development. Tawa-tawa contains active ingredients that may help dengue hemorrhagic fever (DHF) patients – study [Internet]. Republic of the Philippines: Department of Science and Technology; 2012, Sept 10 [cited 2020 Dec 2]; [about 1 screen]. Available from http://www.pchrd.dost.gov.ph/index.php/news/dengue-updates/2631-tawa-tawa-contains-active-ingredients-that-may-help-dengue-hemorrhagic-fever-dhf-patients-study