In a Baltimore convention hall the size of a football field, a woman wearing a fashionable lavender suit sits quietly at a card table. Hundreds of people, here to attend a health products trade show, pass by on their way to booths filled with items for sale. Occasionally, someone stops to ask the woman a question. She is older and very pretty, with a heart-shaped smile and dark eyes. Her modest sales approach and stylish look nearly betray the seriousness of her intent: Madeleine Mumcuoglu has come from Israel to share her discovery—a remedy for the flu.
For more than twenty years, Mumcuoglu (pronounced mum-shu-glu) has studied the European elderberry (Sambucus nigra) and its impact on the influenza virus. Her dedicated effort stems partially from her respect for its history as a folk remedy for colds, coughs, and upper respiratory infections. But her scientific character is at work as well. She holds degrees in pharmacology, microbiology, serology, and parasitology from universities in France and Switzerland, and began working at the Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center’s bone marrow laboratory in 1983, focusing on immunodeficiencies.
According to her research, elderberry extracts have successfully and consistently defeated the flu virus in laboratory tests. In small clinical trials, Mumcuoglu and her colleagues have found that elderberry extracts speed flu recovery by two to four days compared with a placebo (see box, page 33).
Mumcuoglu is excited by her findings because, for one reason, elderberry appears to be more successful than flu vaccines. When a new influenza strain appears, it takes time to identify it and develop a vaccine to fight it; meanwhile, people suffer and/or die from the new flu virus. Conversely, elderberry seems to cast a broader net. With the head of virology at the Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center, Mumcuoglu has tested elderberry extract against eight strains of flu virus—the Beijing, Singapore, Hong Kong, Ann Arbor, Texas, Panama, Yamagata, and Shangdong strains—and found it effective.
“I think nature has done a very good job here,” Mumcuoglu says. “The basic structure of the influenza virus and its variants are, so far, vulnerable to this part of our natural medicine chest.”
Elderberry counteracts influenza in this way, Mumcuoglu says: Viruses cannot replicate on their own, but must invade living cells to do so. The flu virus enters cells by using its tiny spikes, called hemagglutinin, to puncture cell walls. Elderberry’s active ingredient, which Mumcuoglu has isolated and patented, disarms the spikes by binding to them. The spikes also are covered with an enzyme called neuraminidase, which breaks down cell walls, but elderberry’s bioflavonoids may keep this from happening, Mumcuoglu says. Unable to replicate, the influenza virus can’t spread and do harm.
Mumcuoglu began researching elderberry in 1980 while she was completing her doctoral studies at the University of Zurich and searching for a dissertation topic. Her supervisor, Jean Lindenmann, who discovered interferon, suggested that she focus on elderberries. He had twenty-two pounds of them in his freezer, so she had an ample supply with which to start.
She began by cataloging elderberry’s proteins and isolating their active principles, then tested them against the influenza virus in the lab. She found that two of the active principles worked and obtained U.S. patents for them and the standardized process she developed to preserve their effectiveness.
Mumcuoglu moved with her husband to Israel in 1983 and began working at the medical center while she tried to find a way to manufacture an elderberry product. Last fall she started her own company, Razei Bar, in Jerusalem, where European-grown berries are used in her products. The company produces lozenges and extracts sold under the trade name Sambucol in Israel, Europe, the United States, and South Africa. Currently, Mumcuoglu is conducting research into elderberry’s ability to fight other viruses, including herpes, t-cell leukemia, and AIDS, and hopes to conduct the larger clinical trials on elderberry that will be needed to convince mainstream physicians that her product works.
Although her company has been operating for less than a year, Mumcuoglu has donated her products in bulk to homebound senior citizens and AIDS groups, a generosity born from personal experience. Her grandmothers died of influenza in Algeria during the 1950s, so she knows firsthand that the flu can prey mercilessly on the weak, including not only the elderly, but also people with impaired immune systems and those without ready access to flu vaccines.
“Flu is a killer,” Mumcuoglu says. “Very few people in Europe and the West know this because, for many, the flu is something to put up with for eight days, then it’s over. But for senior citizens and immunodepressed people, flu is a high-risk virus. It really doesn’t need to be.”