UAB Researchers Find Potential Cure in Kudzu

By Bob Shepard



It seemed like a good idea at the time. In the 1930s, farmers and government agents across the South sowed fields with a popular new Asian import called kudzu to help fight erosion. The plant quickly ran wild in the hospitable climate; in 1972, the U.S. Department of Agriculture officially declared it a weed. Today, the “vine that ate the South” has gobbled more than 10 million acres, sometimes growing up to a foot a day and as much as 60 feet per year.

But this much-maligned invader may contain a beneficial surprise. UAB researchers recently reported that an edible extract from kudzu’s roots may help regulate high blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood glucose—all contributors to metabolic syndrome, a condition that affects 50 million Americans and is particularly pervasive in the South.

The study focused on substances called isoflavones, in particular one called puerarin. “We were interested in kudzu because of its long history of medicinal use in China and Japan,” says UAB cell biologist J. Michael Wyss, Ph.D., the study’s lead author. “We thought that, like a lot of other plant products, kudzu root extract might have some benefit for cardiovascular function. We found some small benefits, but we got much more excited when we saw the effects on cholesterol and glucose metabolism.”

UAB cell biologist Michael Wyss explains the discovery in this video from UAB News.

An excessive amount of glucose, or sugar, in the blood is linked to both diabetes and obesity. Though the researchers don’t know how puerarin works, Wyss says that “it appears to buffer sugar loads, so when you take in a large amount of sugar, it doesn’t immediately enter your bloodstream but instead enters much more gradually, preventing a sudden surge in glucose.”
At the same time, puerarin seems to steer glucose to places where it is beneficial, depositing it into muscles where it can be used for work, adds UAB biochemist Jeevan Prasain, Ph.D., a study co-author.

But kudzu is no magic bullet for metabolic disease, cautions Wyss. “I don’t think puerarin would ever be a stand-alone treatment for diabetes, obesity, or any other condition that makes up metabolic syndrome,” he notes. “But as metabolic syndrome progresses, a patient needs stronger doses of medications to control it, and those can be toxic at high levels. We hope that puerarin will prove to be a complement to existing drug therapy, allowing patients to decrease the amount of drugs they take and helping those drugs maintain their effectiveness over longer periods.”

Don’t start planting the yard with kudzu just yet, though. Prasain says there is no shortage of kudzu root extract from established growers in China.


More Information

UAB Department of Cell Biology

UAB Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology