Thalassemia. Wheatgrass boosts fetal hemoglobin levels

This article contains evidence that may have an important bearing in the treatment of beta-thalassemia (thalassemia major, Cooley’s anemia, Mediterranean anemia) and sickle cell disease.

A wheatgrass extract I use to considerable success daily in clinical practice may assist many sufferers of this debilitating, often life-threatening disorder. This is supported by both clinical evidence and state-of-the-art science demonstrated by a highly regarded scientist.

Thalassemia major is an inherited disorder of hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that binds oxygen and transports it around the body. Just one gene determines whether or not a child will have the disorder or is simply a carrier of the abnormal gene.

Children of mainly South-East Asian (eg. 600,000 cases in Thailand), Indian, Mediterranean and Central African origin are affected. Patients can suffer from an enlarged liver and spleen, heart failure, growth retardation, endocrine disorders and various other symptoms.

There is no cure.

Current treatment for thalassemics includes regular blood transfusion, chelating or iron-removing drugs, and drugs that induce the production of fetal hemoglobin such as hydroxyurea. Without adequate support and management, the disease can be fatal.

Wheatgrass and other cereal grasses have been thoroughly researched and reported as a therapeutically effective substance since the 1930’s. Traditionally, chlorophyll, or its synthetic derivative, chlorophyllin, has been implicated as the biological active responsible for reported healing effects. A number of animal studies have shown quite marked improvement in anemia following chlorophyll ingestion. (1,2,3). Other studies up to the present day have shown positive results in the treatment of suppurating wounds(4), burns(5), liver cancer(6), ulcerative colitis(7) and many other conditions.

My own experiences in treating numerous patients with a wheatgrass extract since 1995, although anecdotal, strongly support many of these research findings.

A pilot study by Dr. R. K. Marwaha et al at the Advanced Pediatric Centre, Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research, Chandigarh, India, entitled “Wheat grass juice reduces transfusion requirement in patients with thalassemia major: a pilot study.” Over a period of three years from February 2000 to May 2003, 16 out of 38 (42%) blood transfusion dependent thalassemics were “treated” with fresh wheatgrass juice.

To summarise:

  • all participants experienced lower blood transfusion requirements (from 0.4 to 43%)
  • 50% had at least 25% reduction in transfusion requirements
  • the mean interval between transfusions increased 29.5%
  • overall, hemoglobin levels were not compromised by reduced transfusion volumes

Dr. Marwaha’s conclusion: “Wheat grass juice has the potential to lower transfusion requirements in thalassemics.”

He was unwilling to speculate on the “mechanism of action of wheat grass juice in transfusion dependent thalassemics” being of the opinion that the concept of chlorophyll enhancing hemoglobin production “sounds too simplistic”.

I agree, and seriously doubt whether chlorophyll has any function other than to drive photosynthesis by plants. Add to this the fact that the wheatgrass extract I use is clinically effective in most, if not all the areas described in the substantial literature about wheatgrass healing . But, it does not contain chlorophyll.

It is interesting to note that twenty of the original trial participants were withdrawn due to “indiscipline in intake and an insufficient duration of intake of wheat grass juice.”

This does not surprise me considering they were asked to consume 100 mls of wheatgrass per day, which, to my mind, was excessive. Many find fresh wheatgrass juice unpalatable and nauseating, as I do. Some of these children were as young as four and, unless they really enjoyed the taste, would have found it very difficult to comply with the regimen.

Had Dr. Marwaha used the wheatgrass extract I work with daily, which is palatable and easy to ingest, I’m sure the compliance would have increased significantly, and the dose required would amount to no more than 1 to 3 mls. a day. 

Then followed a totally unexpected development.

The Murdoch Children’s Research Institute at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne (Australia) is involved in a number of research projects, including thalassemia. The Cell & Gene Therapy Research Group was headed by Professor Panos Ioannou, a renowned scientist who specialised in thalassemia research. His key work in the production of artificial chromosomes, he made a significant contribution to the Human Genome Project.

He messaged me saying, “We have recently developed very specific assays for the induction of foetal haemoglobin, (“The assay is based on detecting production of HbF in human erythroleukaemia cells using a fluorescent protein gene that is used to replace the genes for HbF“) to facilitate the discovery of pharmacological agents that might be therapeutic for thalassaemia. Given the reported effects of wheatgrass juice on thalassaemia, (Dr. Marwaha’s pilot study) we would very much like to test (your) wheatgrass juice (extract) whether it can cause a significant increase in foetal haemoglobin.”

This point is important. Fetal hemoglobin, (HbF) which has a substantially higher affinity for oxygen than adult hemoglobin, develops in the fetus during the last six months of gestation. As both mother and fetus share the same blood supply, fetal hemoglobin essentially draws off oxygen from the mother’s blood. This enables the fetus to survive in the uterus. After birth, fetal hemoglobin levels fall rapidly and in the adult represents less than two percent of total hemoglobin in the body. It has been found that stimulation or induction of fetal hemoglobin in thalassemia can improve the patient’s clinical condition. Although drugs exist that have this function, e.g. hydroxyurea, they lack specificity and may have a variety of serious side effects.

Professor Ioannou assayed the wheatgrass extract for fetal hemoglobin induction on three separate human cell clones. On 14 July he reported that over a 5 day period:

Our measurements suggest a 3-5 fold increase in the production of HbF by the wheat grass extract. This is a substantial increase and could certainly provide an explanation why some thalassaemia patients may derive significant benefit.”

Of course, these laboratory results may or may not bear a relationship to what one could expect in the thalassemic patient. However, given the quite significant reduction in transfusion requirements noted in some of the patients in Dr. Marwaha’s pilot study, Professor Ioannou’s findings suggest they could have resulted from induction of fetal hemoglobin by wheatgrass.

I think it is worth noting again that the Murdoch Institute results were achieved using a wheatgrass extract that contained virtually no chlorophyll. This fact further supports my belief that chlorophyll, like hemoglobin, has a specific function to perform in nature. As hemoglobin transports oxygen within the red blood cell, so does chlorophyll assist photosynthesis within the chloroplast.

To me, the two new findings relating to wheatgrass and induction of fetal hemoglobin mentioned here could give more than a glimmer of hope to thalassemic patients. Commercial wheatgrass products such as fresh juice, tablets, powders and nutritional supplements are cheap, readily available and virtually devoid of adverse effects. While more studies are clearly necessary, thalassemics may have nothing to lose and possibly much to gain from ingesting wheatgrass, in one form or another, daily.

Finally, while it is not possible to advise the optimal dose of wheatgrass extract for a beneficial effect on thalassaemia, by experience, I recommend in order to benefit fully from wheatgrass to hold it in the mouth for a minute before swallowing. This permits rapid absorption of bioactives through the oral mucous membrane directly into the bloodstream.

References:

  1. Kirkman, N.F. 1939. The effect of low-porphyrin diet on erythropoiesis and hemoglobin regeneration. J Physiol 95:508-515
  2. Kelentei, B., Fekete, I., Kun, F. 1958. Influence of copper chlorophyllin on experimental anemia. Acta Pharm Hung 28:176-180
  3. Borisenko, A.N., Sofonova, A.D. 1965. Hemopoietic effect of Na chlorophyllin. Vrach Delo 9:44-46
  4. Gruskin, B. Chlorophyll – its therapeutic place in acute and suppurative disease. 1940. American Journal of Surgery.
  5. Collings, G. 1945. Chlorophyll and adrenal cortical extract in the local treatment of burns. American Journal of Surgery 70:58- 63.
  6. Egner, P.A., Munoz, A., Kensler, T.W. 2003. Chemoprevention with chlorophyllin in individuals exposed to dietary aflatoxin. Mutat Res. 2003 Feb-Mar;523-524:209-16.
  7. Ben-Ayre, E., Goldin, E., Wengrower, D., Stamper, A., Kohn, R., Berry , E. 2002. Wheat grass juice in the treatment of active distal ulcerative colitis: a randomized double-blind placebo-controlled trial. Scand J Gastroenterol 2002;37:444-449

Dr. Chris Reynolds.

See also: The role of iron chelation activity of wheatgrass juice in blood transfusion requirement of intermediate thalassaemia.