Fending off the Flu

A researcher from Israel finds that elderberry may protect us from a longtime foe.

| September/October 1997

  • Madeleine Mumcuoglu at work in Israel.

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.

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