January 28, 2007

Selling `Gamat’ to the World

By Chai Mei Ling

IT is soggy, sluggish, extremely salty, and smells like a toilet that has not been flushed for some time. CHAI MEI LING gets to know more about the primitive sea cucumber.

Popularly known by its local name, gamat, this little marine creature certainly isn't kind to your taste buds. Yet the coastal villagers of Langkawi have no qualms about swallowing it raw after disposing of its guts.

And the islanders, whose ancestors have been doing it for more than 300 years, are surely on to something.

Although gamat has long been held by the locals as a remedy for cuts, wounds and inflammation, it wasn't until a little more than a decade ago that the unique species was scientifically proven to contain rejuvenation properties.

These findings garnered the first prize in the Malaysian Invention and Discovery Award 1994, presented by the Science and Technology Ministry.

The identification of the active substance in gamat responsible for its properties had been submitted to the Food and Drug Administration for patenting, which was done under Imex Corporation in Kyoto, Japan.

More than 10 years after the discovery, the man behind all this, researcher and clinical pharmacologist Professor Dr Hassan Yaacob, still gushes at the mention of the marine animal.

"A gamat, when cut into half and placed in sea water, is capable of reattaching itself and growing as one once more," said Hassan, who has done 16 years of research at home and abroad.

"Such are the powers of regeneration echinoderms have. It's not surprising that gamat contains a cell growth factor which accelerates the regeneration of biological cells, bone, collagen and nerves, and rejuvenates the skin."

Gamat is found in the ocean beds of northwest Malaysia, notably the more remote parts of Langkawi and Pangkor islands.

Although it can be classified under the Holothuroidea class, gamat, unlike most sea cucumbers, is very rich in mucopolysaccharides, chondroitins and other soft tissues resembling cartilage, which is why it melts when exposed to sunlight. As such, it is active and can be harvested only at night.

The yellow, brown or brick red creature produces eggs in the form of powder or dust during high tide, multiplies fast, and can grow up to one foot long, weighing up to 1.2 kg in just two years.

Gamat, according to Hassan's analysis, is rich in natural nutrients like protein, vitamins A and C, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, iron, manganese, calcium, magnesium and zinc.

Hassan's involvement in the extensive gamat research, and his arrival at such discoveries was rather unplanned, and definitely unexpected.

A PhD holder in Clinical Pharmacology from Royal College of Surgeons of England, Hassan wasn't a believer in traditional healing, and when he conducted a series of experiments at Universiti Malaya in 1990, it was to disprove the "gamat myth" held by the layman.

"People have been using it extensively for centuries, so I became curious and tried tasting it. It was salty, fishy and smelt like a toilet which had not been flushed for years."

His research indicated that gamat indeed has healing properties, "although it did not make any sense", then.

Further research in the Research Institute for Traditional Medicine, Toyama Medical and Pharmaceutical universities, Japan in 1995 revealed the active ingredient in gamat to be a protein- binding receptor.

This complex substance has been identified as a biostimulant and named gamodulin due to its ability to stimulate and modulate cell growth, including cells involved in the immune system.

Hassan's clinical studies found that gamodulin could suppress pain associated with inflammation and itch sensation, increase peripheral blood circulation and cardiovascular efficiency, and possesses anti-allergic properties.

The process of extracting the essence of gamat from its salty and fishy form and refining it has to be done scientifically in order to preserve its therapeutic properties.

Hassan said people should practise caution when it comes to the many herbal remedies available in the market, as not all undergo proper extraction or have been certified safe for use.

Based on encouraging findings, Hassan introduced gamat-based health supplements under the Healin line in 1997.

The gamat extract is used to manufacture products, spawning from emulsion, jellies, gel, massage cream, and liniment oil to shampoo, body shampoo, toothpaste, juice, drinks and skincare products.

"Through our research and feedback from patients, consuming gamat helps prevent blood clots, reduces blood pressure, increases heart respiratory rate, eases kidney function, and increases metabolism."

Hassan said it is a health supplement which can be used as an adjunct therapy for epilepsy, stroke, diabetes, coronary diseases, gastric ulcers, high cholesterol and skin problems.

When news about the benefits of gamat spread, TV3 approached Hassan and threw him a challenge to treat patients afflicted with varied illnesses nationwide using gamat-based products.

The station is currently broadcasting the "results" over 10 episodes, including the case of a two-year-old girl afflicted with eczema.

"Gamat is nature's gift of rejuvenation and a testimony to the wisdom of time. Its benefits are inexhaustible," said Hassan.

Indeed, the soft, fishy, spiny-skinned creature from the waters off the northwestern peninsula could very well be on its way to capturing the imagination of a global audience.

(c) 2007 New Straits Times. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.