Blood: Thalassemia. Increased fetal hemoglobin production due to wheatgrass

About thalassemia

Thalassemia major is an inherited, potentially fatal 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 from South-East Asian (eg. 600,000 cases in Thailand), India, the Mediterranean and Central Africa are most affected, and can suffer from enlarged liver and spleen, heart failure, growth retardation and hormonal disorders. Current treatment includes regular blood transfusion, chelating or iron-removing drugs, and hydroxyurea.

About wheatgrass and healing

For many years, wheatgrass has been known to be effective for a number of ailments such as anemia. (1,2,3), suppurating wounds (4), burns (5), liver cancer (6), and ulcerative colitis (7) where chlorophyll has been implicated as the biological active responsible for reported healing effects.

Wheatgrass may also influence treatment of beta-thalassemia (thalassemia major, Cooley's anemia, Mediterranean anemia) and sickle cell disease which are all debilitating and potentially life-threatening blood disorders.

1. Study shows hope for thalassemics taking wheatgrass

A study performed by Dr. R. K. Marwaha 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." recorded the following results of 16 patients:

  • all 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 by 29.5%
  • hemoglobin levels were not compromised by reduced transfusion volumes

In conclusion, "wheat grass juice has the potential to lower transfusion requirements in thalassemics."

Twenty participants withdrew due to "indiscipline in intake and an insufficient duration of intake of wheat grass juice" which is to be expected considering they had to consume 100mls per day -a difficult task even for an adult.

2. Study shows rise in fetal hemoglobin by wheatgrass

The Murdoch Children's Research Institute at the Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne (Australia) is involved in a number of research projects, one of which is thalassemia. The Cell & Gene Therapy Research Group was headed by Professor Panos Ioannou, a specialist in thalassemia research and an important contributor to the Human Genome Project due to his knowledge and development of artificial chromosomes.

He emailed me unexpectedly on 3rd May, 2004

"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 wheatgrass juice (extract) whether it can cause a significant increase in fetal haemoglobin."

About fetal hemoglobin (HbF)

Fetal hemoglobin, 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 which 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.

Stimulation or induction of fetal hemoglobin in thalassemia can improve the patient's clinical condition and, although drugs exist that have this function, e.g. hydroxyurea, they lack specificity and may cause serious side effects.

Prof. Ioannou's wheatgrass research

Professor Ioannou assayed the wheatgrass extract for fetal hemoglobin induction on three separate human cell clones, and 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."

The significant reduction in transfusion requirements noted in Dr. Marwaha's study may suggest that Professor Ioannou's results could have been due to  the induction of fetal hemoglobin by wheatgrass.

Forget the chlorophyll

Importantly, Prof. Ioannou's results were achieved using a wheatgrass extract that contained no chlorophyll which, like hemoglobin, has a specific function to perform in nature - but not in humans! Just as hemoglobin transports oxygen within the red blood cell, so does chlorophyll assist photosynthesis within the chloroplast inside plant leaf cells.

The studies mentioned here may offer some hope for thalassemic patients given that commercial wheatgrass products such as fresh juice, tablets, powders and nutritional supplements are inexpensive and freely available. They may have much to gain by testing wheatgrass in one form or another just twice weekly, taking care to hold the juice in the mouth for a minute to allow absorption of bioactives through the oral membrane into the bloodstream.

Dr. Chris Reynolds.

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  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-Arye, 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