Venivelgeta: new technologies for an old herb | Sunday Observer

Venivelgeta: new technologies for an old herb

26 March, 2017
Warakagoda’s team developed a method of using the leaves – inducing the growth of callouses, from which Berberine could be extracted. WWW.FLICKR.COM
Warakagoda’s team developed a method of using the leaves – inducing the growth of callouses, from which Berberine could be extracted. WWW.FLICKR.COM

Venivelgeta, which is highly sought after, for health-care and cosmetic purposes, is finding new uses in battling diabetes and cancer. Today, new technologies are being utilised to cultivate it on a large scale and to extract its essential therapeutic compound.

The venivelgeta vine (Coscinium fenestratum), known as atturam or kadari in Tamil, and internationally as tree turmeric or false Columba, grows wild in South and South-East Asia.

It figures on the list of highly endangered species, because of the time each plant takes to mature, which makes it vulnerable to over-exploitation. Certainly there is a growing, already high demand for the thick stem and root, to produce medicines, wellness products and cosmetics. Now, the demand is likely to be turbo-charged by the needs of new therapies, emerging from current scientific investigations

Venivelgeta is widely used in Asian indigenous medical systems, including Ayurveda, Siddha, Unani and Sinhala vedakam. A study by the Industrial Technology Institute (ITI) and the Wayamba University found that approximately 31 tonnes of venivelgeta are used therapeutically by practitioners of indigenous medicine in Sri Lanka each year. Companies producing skin care and cosmetic products use even more.

“The component of venivel of therapeutic value,” says Dr MenukaArawwawala, Principal Research Scientist, Herbal Technology Section, “is called berberine.”


Berberine, a complex organic chemical compound containing nitrogen, gets its name from the barberry (Berberis vulgaris), in which it is present. The herbsrasandu (Berberisaristata) and rasakinda (Tinosporacordifolia) also contain the substance.

“It has an anti-bacterial action,” says Dr Arawwawala, who has worked on extracting the substance from the trunk of the plant, and on developing standards for berberine content in market samples, “and is used in traditional medicine for reducing fever and for digestive disorders.”

Multi-purpose drug

Widely used for thousands of years as an antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory drug, as well as a gastrointestinal remedy; by South and South-East Asians, by Chinese and by American Indians; the cosmetic applications of berberine include use in fairness creams, body lotions, soaps and bath additives.

Recent research has also pointed to its efficacy in treating diabetes. In 2008, the Shanghai Jiaotong University School of Medicine and Pennington Biomedical Research Centre, Louisiana, in the USA jointly carried out a pilot study.

They found in berberine, a safe, low cost and potent treatment for excessive blood sugar. Two years later, scientists at the Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine found that berberine mimics the action of insulin in lowering high blood sugar, but did not increase insulin levels.

Berberine also has potential as a therapy for cancer. Scientists at the University of Coimbra in Portugal: found evidence that berberine interfered with the metabolic regulation of tumour cells, making it a safe anti-cancer agent.

Scientists at Patanjali University in India found that, used with curcumin, the principal chemical in turmeric (Curcuma longa or, in Sinhala and Tamil, kaha and manjal respectively), berberineworked against cancer. Researchers at the University of Macau in China tested the effects of the combination on breast cancer, concluding that it offered a pathway to prevention and treatment of the disease.

Limited availability

One of the inhibiting factors slowing down research is the lack of availability of berberine. Venivel takes 15 years to mature and flower, meaning that both availability of the raw material and of seed stocks is limited. Seed stock also lose viability over time.

This limits the viability of venivel as a cultivated crop. It also impedes the ability of producers to meet the expected exploding demand, due to the research which has taken place.

Herbal products manufacturer Link Natural Products (Pvt) Ltd uses venivel in its traditional medicines, such as Samahan and Pas Panguwa, and in its skin-care and cosmetic formulations. The company collected its stocks of the liana from the forests, in the time-honoured way, which is time-consuming and inefficient. Link began looking at methods grow venivelgeta creepers, to speed up production, and obtained the services of PriyanvadaWarakagoda, a post-graduate student at the University of Ruhuna. Researching for the company, at the university’s facility at Kamburupitiya, she concurrently wrote her PhD thesis on developing an agro-technological package for herb production.

Venivel is usually propagated from seed, but this is an inefficient cultivation method, since only about 10 or 12 plants grow successfully from 100 seeds, the hard seed coat discouraging germination – which only takes place after six months.

Warakagoda and her team first experimented with improving the success rate of germination from seeds, which they collected from lianas in the Sinharaja, Kannelia and Wilpita rainforests. They achieved considerable success by exposing the seeds to sunlight for six hours, soaking them for a day in the gibberellic acidhormone, planting them in a sand-coir mixture, and keeping them in uncontaminated, dark and hot conditions.

Five stages

Despite a very high success rate, constraints remained on mass planting – the seed stock is limited by the rarity of the vine and the time taken for flowering.Vegetative propagation, using cuttings, proved of low success. Warakagoda turned to tissue culture techniques, or micro-propagation – a quite complicated operation, taking several months to deliver plant stock.

The process involves five stages: firstly obtaining the ‘mother stock’ from seed, free of contamination, in the plant house and maintaining it free of pests; secondly pruning the mother stock, to obtain new shoots as planting material –called ‘ex-plants’ – which are surface-sterilised and placed in an artificial culture medium in test tubes in a culture room. After a few months, the stock is replanted in a new artificial culture medium, in a larger vessel, in order to induce shoot proliferation. The stock is kept within the culture room, under controlled conditions, including 14-hour lighting cycles alternating with shorter periods of darkness. The fourth stage involves rooting the stock in a new artificial culture medium. The media used at the different stages vary according to hormone usage.

In the final stage, acclimatisation phase, the microplants are taken out of the culture room and planted in a sand-coir mixture, in planting trays. They are, gradually, over a period of about a month, taken out of the previous artificial controlled environment and acclimatised to the real conditions existing outside.

It proved possible to provide a large plant population using tissue culture. Nevertheless, the problem of the 15 years’ period for maturity remained. So, instead of extracting from the trunk, Warakagoda’s team developed a method of using the leaves – inducing the growth of callouses, from which Berberine could be extracted. The quality of callous-sourced artificial berberine matches that of the stem-produced ‘natural’ variety.

The first harvest of callouses is within six months, compared to 15 years for gathering stems. Of course, the yield of berberine from a mature stem surpasses the equivalent production of the artificial variety. However, the turnover time of investment is much less, and cultivators could begin getting a return in less than a year.

This opens the pathway for Sri Lanka to become a major producer and exporter of berberine, and to become a hub of scientific herb production.