Malaysia is set to export products made with tongkat ali, a herb thought to have aphrodisiac properties

Hard sell: Nearly 200 products in Malaysia are made with the tongkat ali root, thought to have aphrodisiac properties. Credit: David Cyranoski

For the first few days you might have a light headache, a slight fever or even a rash. But the results—increased sexual desire, enhanced performance and general well-being—should be worth it. At least, that's what Malaysia's researchers are banking on.

I'll put tongkat ali on the world market. Azizol Abdul Kadir, Phytes Biotek

Malaysians have long believed that consuming tongkat ali, a shrub that can grow to ten meters, has several benefits—most notably, aphrodisiac powers for men. Scientists there now hope to hone in on the herb's active ingredients and market it to the world. If they succeed, the venture will mark Malaysian biotechnology's first big triumph.

Most Malays ingest the herb, Eurycoma longifolia, as a tea prepared by boiling chunks of the root. More recently, a powder produced by drying the boiled concoction is being put into pills or added to food products. In Kuala Lumpur, billboards advertise canned beverages spiked with the herb; tongkat ali chocolate and dried coffee are available at airport shops. There are nearly 200 such products on the domestic market.

These products are ready to go abroad, says Azizol Abdul Kadir, president of Phytes Biotek, a biotechnology company in Selangor. “I'll put tongkat ali on the world market.”

Malaysia's neighbor Singapore has won global acclaim for its burgeoning biomedical research industry. In a bid to jumpstart its own ailing biotechnology industry (Nature 436, 620–621; 2005), the Malaysian government has sunk about $7 million into the herb. The central project is a collaboration with 230 researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia and 16 other Malaysian institutes.

Critics say Malaysia is squandering its scarce resources on research that is unlikely to pay off. “Basic science should be equally emphasized, but it isn't,” says a biologist at Monash University Malaysia in Selangor.

The researchers have had some success (Plant Physiol. 131, 1294–1301; 2003), but have not yet published reports on the herb's efficacy in high-impact journals. That is because the government is concerned about intellectual property, says Mohd. Ilham Adenan, the project's coordinator. The researchers have already filed patents in Malaysia, the US and Japan.

The project suffered at least a temporary setback on 12 August, when the US rejected an application for a patent on a 4.3-kilodalton glycoprotein thought to increase testosterone synthesis. But MIT plant biologist Anthony Sinskey remains bullish. “The findings are novel and important so we are confident,” he says.

The researchers decline to identify the protein, one of the herb's active components. Previous studies have shown that in mice, gradually increasing the herb's dose makes mice more sexually active (J. Herbs Species Med. Plants 9, 109–114; 2002). Beyond a set dose, the males are overcome with sexual desire, says Azizol, and “don't discriminate between male and female anymore.”

The results have also borne out in early clinical studies out on a small group of men, Azizol says. In one study, 40% reported feeling easily aroused, having longer erections and experiencing more climaxes during intercourse. Many also reported improved memory and better bowel movements. But 12% noted constipation and 8% said their erectile problems persisted.

Azizol says the herb might also become popular for combating malaria, cancer and aging. “It's not just for sex—it's for the whole body.”