KUALA LUMPUR, March 19 (Reuters) - Malaysia's answer to Viagra is a traditional herb the country has picked to spearhead its push into biotechnology, but now it faces the challenge of convincing the world the remedy is both potent and safe.
Surging interest in the herb, "tongkat ali", has spawned dozens of products, from pills to beverages, that play up its reputed aphrodisiac properties, and could even threaten the sway overseas of ginseng, a more-widely established remedy in Asia.
Generations of ageing Malaysian men have sworn by the rejuvenation effects of "tongkat ali", scouring the countryside for it so eagerly that it has almost vanished from all but the deepest rainforest, and now has the status of a protected plant.
Scientific studies show that concoctions of "tongkat ali" can help hormone production, making rats and mice more frisky, but have yet to prove it can reliably produce the same effect in humans, researchers say.
"It can have different effects on different people," said Abdul Razak, head of the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia, which is driving research and commercial production of the herb.
"For me, it gives the energy to play a game of golf without getting tired, but has no other effects," said Razak, who takes two capsule supplements of the herb before each weekly game to increase his stamina.
"Tongkat ali", which scientists call Eurycoma longifolia, is a slender evergreen shrub with bitter, brownish-red fruit that is native to Malaysia and Indonesia.
All parts of the plant which grows up to 10 metres (33 ft) tall can be chopped up fine and boiled in water to make the traditional medicine.
As Malaysia looks to biotechnology for economic growth, scientists are taking a harder look at the aphrodisiac qualities of tongkat ali, which means the "walking-stick of Ali," in Malay, and they say it could spawn drugs to treat cancer and malaria.
PREPARING FOR COMMERCIAL USE
Five years of research studies in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States have helped to identify the key compounds in the herb, Razak said.
"All these compounds have been found, have been tested and have been patented, and we are now in the process of carrying out clinical studies, and hopefully after some time we might even commercialise this," he added.
A Malaysian industry and government group says the rapidly growing global market for aphrodisiacs is worth about $4 billion and could reach nearly $7 billion by 2012, but plans for "tongkat ali" to grab a share of this pie hinge on proving it is safe.
In Taiwan this year, Taipei city officials banned six brands of coffee from supermarkets because they contained "tongkat ali", saying the plant had not been evaluated for safe use, although there were no confirmed reports of side-effects, newspapers said.
The episode in January stirred indignation in Malaysia, where some officials publicly defended the herb, saying its safety and efficacy had been demonstrated by hundreds of years of use.
Others said the incident showed how far Malaysia still has to go to prove its claims for the herb.
"We've still got a lot of homework to do as a nation," said M. Rajen, chief executive of Tropical Botanics Sdn Bhd, which counts among its products Malaysia's most popular fish-oil brand.
Makers of ginseng, which has a global market of about $2 billion a year, according to some industry estimates, would be ruthless in battling competition from "tongkat ali", he said.
"What we see in Taiwan and elsewhere is an example of this ruthlessness," Rajen added. "Because we have not done our homework, we cannot fight it."
But Malaysia is confident it will convince the world. Officials of Power Root Malaysia Sdn Bhd, which exports tea and coffee drinks containing the herb to Japan and South Korea, have said they are looking to the United States and the Middle East.
"One day 'tongkat ali' will be marketed internationally, even in Harrods of London," Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak said in January, at the launch of a $7 million biotech research centre that will study ways to clone the herb.
At the Forest Research Institute, workers in white protective gear poured sacks of the herb into gleaming stainless steel dryers and grinders to turn out powder for capsules.
"It's high time for 'tongkat ali' now," said researcher Mohamad Shahidan, grinning through his face mask. "Everybody wants to try it." ($1=3.509 Malaysian Ringgit)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.