Aloe vera has been a source for healing since Old Testament times, but very little is known about exactly how it works its wonders. New research by scientists in Texas is hoping to unlock some of the plant's secrets.
Dr Ian Tizard, professor of immunology in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M University, is studying a special polysaccharide, the substance that forms along cell walls of the Aloe vera plant, to see how it helps heal the human body.
The Aloe vera is native to North Africa but now can be found almost worldwide, and while there are more than 100 species of aloe, Aloe vera is the one that has drawn the most scientific interest.
"When Aloe vera is placed on many types of wounds, such as bedsores, it can often heal the wound quickly, and the likely reason why is the special polysaccharide in it," Tizard said. "Many plants contain this polysaccharide, but the kind found in Aloe vera works differently, we've learned. It seems to bind growth factors in wounds whereas normally they would be destroyed. Aloe vera polysaccharide seems to speed along the healing process much quicker. "
How exactly the plant does this is what Tizard and his team hope to discover.
"The pulp comes out of the plant like a clear liquid, but when it touches human skin, it becomes a gel," Tizard said. "It acts as a wound sealant in this gel state, and no other plants do so."
The healing properties of the plant are seen as being especially beneficial to the elderly. "Geriatric patients often have wounds that won't heal properly or take longer to heal," Tizard said. "That's one of the things we're looking at - how can wounds heal quicker, and what role does the Aloe vera plant play in this quicker healing process?"
Aloe vera has long, pointed leaves consisting of green rind and clear pulp. The pulp is the part of the plant that has the healing agents in it. However, almost all of the plant has some use, Tizard said.
The rind has been used as a laxative while the pulp has been put on burns and wounds for thousands of years. Besides being used in lotions and medicines, in recent years cosmetic companies have used Aloe vera in a variety of products, especially moisturisers.