Sunday, December 17, 2006

Ahhh, frog sweat,,,

It's Sunday night, the 17th of December. I've just woken from a frog sweat dream. This is the second I've had in the last 10 days. Neither were Herculean doses, but both were memorable. This time I took it in the right forearm. Last time it was in the upper right bicep. This is what I wrote about the last time, and a version of this should appear in the next week or so in the new webzine Mariri, put out by a net friend named Lorni Li. It's her second issue and the first had a handful of wonderful, adventurous stories related to indigenous peoples. This story relates to them as well.


The secretions from a tree frog the Matses Indians have traditionally burnt into their arms might just burn a new path in Western medicine.

By Peter Gorman

I’m sitting at my desk. In front of me is a slender piece of bamboo perhaps eight inches long and tapered to a point at both ends. Next to it a candle burns. I cut a piece of tamshi—a strong, thin vine traditionally used for lashing things together in Amazon building—from a 10’ coil and place one end into the candle fire. When it glows bright red I push the burning end hard into my upper right arm. It stings as the outer skin is burned.
I clean the tip of the tamshi and put it back into the candle fire. When it’s ready I burn my arm a second time, then scrape the skin from both burns, revealing a subcutaneous layer dotted with tiny red capillaries.
I turn my attention to the bamboo splint. One side is covered in what looks like dried varnish, but is actually the dried secretions of a bright green tree frog called the phyllomedusa bicolor. The secretions are its protective armor against tree snake predators: as the snake squeezes on the frog, the secretions are released from its legs and body. They are painful enough that the snake will often release its prey,
I spit onto a half-inch section of the bamboo splint, then take a sharp knife and scrape the dried secretions into it. In a few moments the secretions have absorbed the spit and become the texture of moist wasabi mustard. I pick up a little with the tip of the knife and apply it to one of the burn marks on my arm. It looks like a tiny mountain of wasabi. I do the same with the second burn.
By the time I put down the knife and count to 15 my ears begin to heat up. My heart begins to beat faster. My head is unusually warm. My stomach begins to clench. My fingers lose the ability to type.
By the time a minute or two has gone by my mouth is dry and my lips are numb. I can feel the soft tissue around my eyes beginning to swell. My blood begins to race. I can feel the insides of my body as it speeds through it.
I have to sit comfortably and move to the nearby couch. No good. My skin begins to jump and I slide to the floor to lie down. My blood is still picking up speed and I can begin to hear it beating like a drum against my rib cage. My breathing is short, shallow and through the mouth as my nasal passages are utterly swollen with mucous. I’m alert but suddenly useless. I’m a bag of bones being operated on by a force working from the inside out. I’m a wounded animal, not in pain so much as mystified that I cannot move. My arms and legs are heavy. My head is going to explode.
I lay there for maybe ten minutes, utterly immobile. My breathing is now accompanied by sounds, like an old man, or a low growl. I have the urge to both defecate and vomit but my body won’t even let me move the muscles necessary to do that.
I give up to the overwhelmingness of it all. My body is on the floor. I am nowhere. I am an animal in a useless skin. I’m not going to make it if my blood doesn’t slow down. Every artery, every vein, every capillary is making itself known to me, an unimaginable awareness of the human machine. Throbbing, throbbing, so loud the rushing and racing of all that blood and the pounding of my heart.
Suddenly horses appear. Then children spinning around a sort of homemade whirlaway. They spin faster and faster until nothing is left of them but a million tiny droplets of blood filling my closed-eyed landscape. They are spinning like the children. They are my blood rushing. They are suddenly, clearly, the endless spinning of the double helix of DNA, moving across my field of vision.
These aren’t visions. Just images. This isn’t a visionary medicine.
Realizing that I suddenly also realize that I’ve just peaked. That my heart, racing, racing, is not going any faster this second than it was the last. There are animals everywhere in the dark. And then there is the phyllomedusa bicolor taking up the whole screen. It barks its strange and unique repeated bark so familiar to me in the jungle. No. Wait. This bark is coming from me. I hear my oldest son laughing nearby. I’m so happy he’s close. I know I’m not going to die now.
I roll over onto my back and begin to chuckle. I’m still racing but the charge has slowed to a gallop. The blood-drop helix reappears and I watch it slowing down, so beautiful, so clear, so delicate but so strong.
I realize I’ve been sweating. I’m soaked despite the coolness of the house.
I start making sounds just to announce to the world my being alive again. A shiver runs up and down my spine, down into my feet and toes and back up again. I’m giggling, and begin to talk. My son tells me I’m talking nonsense words. I meant to say, "That’s some medicine, That’s some crazy medicine," but my lips can’t yet form words.
My son laughs. "Dad. People let you do this to them? They’re freaking crazy."
I laugh. It’s extraordinary medicine. And he knows it. He’s been burned himself a few times.
I rest. Perhaps half an hour passes. I finally force myself into action and get to the bathroom to vomit and defecate. I wash up and walk to the front porch. It’s a glorious Texas morning. I can see for miles through the crisp late autumn foliage. I can hear horses playing deep in the rear of my neighbor’s property several hundred yards away. I hear the remaining leaves on my trees rustling in the slight breeze. I have such clarity of vision and hearing. I am clean inside. I am wonderfully alive.

No matter how many times I use sapo, the speed and power with which it works never stops surprising me. The very first time I use it was the most frightening of all. It was 1986 and I was with my guide and teacher, the wonderful naturalist and survival guide Moises Torres Vienna, and my brother-in-law Steve Flores. We were out on the river Galvez, near the Peruvian border with Brazil, in a Matses Indian village. The Matses, who, like everyone who lives on the rivers in the Amazon have had contact with river traders, the military and missionaries, were still pretty remote at that time. They wore clothing at times, at other times didn’t; they still tatooed the beautiful hashmark tatoo around their mouths and across their cheeks nearly to their ears, and wore bamboo splints in their upper lips and noses daily, which, when accented with the red dye of the achote plant made them look like jaguars. A few of the men spoke basic Spanish; for the rest they spoke their own language, a gutteral tongue anthropologists say is part of the Panoan language group.
It was only our second or third day at that particular village, which was really just the home of two men, Pablo and Alberto, and their several wives and nearly 20 children. Steve had gone out early in the morning with Alberto and one of the older boys; I stayed with Moises and Pablo in the hut of Pablo’s main wife, Ma-Shu. Ma-Shu was cooking something and I was pointing to things around the fire and asking what the Matses words were for them. There were clay pots and bows and arrows stuck into the hut’s leaf roof, woven baskets and the like. And then I pointed to a little plastic bag that was hanging perhaps three feet above the fire. Pablo’s eyes lit up. "Sapo. Sapo Petro (his pronunciation of Pedro)."
With a long stick he quickly unhooked the twine that held the bag, brought it down and opened it. Inside was a small bamboo stick with what looked like varnish on it. "Sapo. Medicina. Bueno," he said with mischiveous enthusiasm.
He spit on the stick and began scraping the varnish with a piece of vine he broke from one of the hut’s joints. I watched, wondering what the heck he was doing. In moments he’d mixed the spit with varnish to make a loose paste. Then he put the bamboo splint down and stuck the bit of vine into the fire. He picked it up once it caught and blew on one end until it was bright red. Then suddenly, unexpectedly, he reached out and grabbed my left wrist. I went to draw it back but he held it firmly. Then he burned my inner forearm with the vine, thrust the stick back into the fire for a moment, then burned me again. Still holding on to my wrist he deftly scraped off the burned layers of skin, then scraped some of the paste off the bamboo splint and dabbed it on the raw flesh he’d exposed.
"Sapo, Petro. Sapo." And then he barked, a strange but familiar sound I didn’t recognize at the time as being the call of the phyllomedusa bicolor tree frog.
In moments my head began to feel strange, like it was getting hot. My heart began to race. I looked at Moises and asked what it was and what was happening. Moises, who knew everything about the jungle, just shrugged as if to say he had no idea what this sapo was. I got terrified. My heart beat faster.
Ma Shu saw me begin to double up to vomit and quickly got me out of her hut. I fell onto the clay outside and vomited violently, then, unable to hold myself up, fell onto my side. Whatever it was was surely going to kill me and I prayed it would be over soon. The beating of my heart was like a loud drumbeat in my head. My temples felt as though they were going to explode at any instant. I was sweating uncontrollably. I could feel myself starting to shit and couldn’t stop it. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t do anything. I was just praying to die.
I had no idea how long the ordeal lasted. I just know that at some point there were lots of children around me, giggling and saying "Sapo", while Pablo was making farting noises and his wives laughed hysterically. At some point someone wiped my face with a piece of leaf and made a disgusted noise that set everyone laughing again. I passed out.
When I woke I was on a low platform of a hut under construction. I stood shakily, amazed and thrilled to be alive. I heard someone talking and turned to them: There was no one within 50 feet of me. The only people I saw at all were Martha, Pablo’s youngest wife, and Ma Shu, standing across the horseshoe shaped village in front of Ma Shu’s hut.
But I heard voices. It took me a minute to realize I was hearing their voices. But that was impossible. They weren’t yelling. And then I realized I was hearing monkey’s chatter as well, and looked to see where they were: no where in my field of vision. But then I realized my field of vision was much sharper than normal. I was looking at individual leaves in tall trees 30 meters away and seeing their serrations. And after a few more minutes, I realized I felt strong. Not just my regular strong, but really strong. In my notebook that night I wrote that I felt like God. Hyperbole, of course, but my sight, my hearing, my strength… everything was bigger and better than it had been.
It hit me. Better than it had been before Pablo gave me the sapo. So that was the medicine. That’s why he called it ‘buena medicina’.
In a little while Steve returned from his fishing expedition with Alberto and I told him what happened. He didn’t quite believe me, but that evening learned I was tellin gthe truth when it happened to him as well.
And over dinner, which I didn’t feel the need for, via a combination of the wretched Spanish of myself and Pablo, a sort of telepathy that seems to happen around the Matses, and a lot of hand signals, I asked Pablo about this medicine. He explained that it was something the Matses used to hunt, because it made them strong and invisible. They also used it for long hiking trips—the Matses at that time would frequently walk a couple of hundred miles or so on hunting trips of several days—because, as Pablo explained with his hands, after sapo you weren’t hungry. And he also indicated it was used for lazy children, for people sick with the grippe—which still kills a number of fairly remote indigenous and a surprising number of mestizos as well—and to discover whether a woman was pregnant, and if she was, who was the father; whether the fetus was a male or female, whether it was in good health, and if not, as an abortive.
I don’t know how I got all that, but it was all in my notes that night before bed. Pablo, I learned, was simply an amazing communicator. Of course, I didn’t actually get the value of much of what he’d said, or even understand it—what did he mean it made them invisible when hunting? For instance. And how could you tell who the father of a baby was? Heck, Pablo and I didn’t even speak the same language. I wondered if I’d just made it up.
There was lots I didn’t know at the time. Among the more interesting things was that my written account of sapo would turn out to be the first first-hand account in the history of the world—at least according to several scientists, including Mark Plotkin and Richard Schultes—of a human taking an animal substance directly into the blood stream for medicinal purposes. I also didn’t know that after word of my account got out that other gringos would begin asking other indigenous about sapo—frog sweat—and that 20 years later it would be utilized by more than a dozen indigenous groups from Peru to Brazil.
I also had no idea that that account would catch the interest of Vittorio Erspamer, a scientist at the FIDIA Research Institute of Neurosciences at the University of Rome whose groundbreaking work with the medicine would yield more than six dozen new proteins, all of which are bioactive—meaning they work in humans as if the human body had produced them—opening up an entirely new branch of study in Western medicine: the study of amphibian proteins as curatives in humans.
Perhaps most humbly, I also didn’t know that the word sapo means toad, not frog, in Spanish—something that the Matses didn’t know either—so that the medicine called ‘frog’ or ‘frog sweat’ is actually misnamed in Spanish as ‘toad’.
Some of the other things I’d written down but didn’t know at the time I learned in the next couple of weeks and years: the medicine turns on what I can only describe as an adrenaline drip that lasts for days. You neither get overwhelmingly hungry or thirsty. You can eat, but if there’s no food, that’s okay. And while you can sleep, you can be recharged very quickly. I learned that hiking with the Matses, who almost jog through the forest. Before a long hike they’ll utilize sizeable doses of sapo, then head off. If it’s a two or three day hike they might carry some farina—dried, roasted yucca—but they don’t need to be bogged down carring a lot of food stuffs, or stop their hike to go searching for food. Same with exhaustion. When it’s time to rest, they’ll stop for five or ten minutes, then begin again. All day.
The invisibility took longer to figure, but as I grew accustomed to hunting with Pablo and other Matses men over the next couple of years, I realized that invisible didn’t mean invisible as in ‘you can’t see me.’ It meant invisible as in ‘I am invisible to the animals I’m hunting and therefore can get closer to them, giving me a better chance at a good hunt.’
The idea there is to realize that most rainforest animals don’t see very well, but the hear and smell exceptionally. The Matses hunters already know how to move so quietly that they can beat the sight and hearing of their prey. But the smell is difficult to overcome. And that’s where sapo comes into play: with massive doses even the lithe Matses sweat profusely. Often, before a hunt, they’ll do sapo, sweat, and then rinse in the river. Having eliminated their surface toxins, they’re now, temporarily, smell-less. Which gives them a great advantage in getting a couple of steps closer to their prey. They become, essentially, invisible.
The grippe is also affected by the tremendous sweating, and lazy children not only have the energy to work after a small dose of sapo, they’re generally so frightened of having it applied that just talk of it will get them doing their chores in the village.
The female things only made sense when I actually observed them. At one Matses camp one night several women were chiding a young woman about her pregnancy. The girl certainly didn’t look pregnant, and was denying that she was. Suddenly the village headman took out sapo and gave her a single dose on the inside of her wrist. Instantly she crossed the hut to lie near a young man. Everyone laughed. It was later explained that if a woman got sapo, she would tend to run to the man she loved, and if that man was not her husband, the camp would know she’d fallen in love with a new man.
The rest involved old-fashioned mid-wifery: in this case when the woman peed, an old woman collected some of the urine from the ground and ran it between her fingers and held it to her nose. Something about the texture or smell indicated to her that the young woman was indeed pregnant and she turned around and made a big belly hand signal, sending all into celebration, particularly the young man, who at first seemed nervous but joined the celebration.
Whether the embryo was male or female is apparently determined by the cloudiness of the urine; whether it’s healthy by the sppearance of specks of blood in the urine; and abortion is achieved with a high dose.
Erspamer’s earliest work on the phyllomedusa bicolor and other members of the phyllomedusa family had shown fantastic amounts of peptides—proteins—in their secretions, but it wasn’t until he got my paper that he began to work on the idea of their bioactivity in humans. I’d collected some things for the American Museum of Natural History and written a report of my first encounter with the Matses for them. When I brought back my second report, the one that included my first sapo experience, he got wind of it and asked for a copy. And then he went to work with just what I wrote: how it was applied, the immediate effects, the longer term effects and the other effects that I described but hadn’t witnessed. Surprisingly, for each he was able to find a novel peptide in the sample of sapo I sent him.
The sapo , he said, was a sort of fantastic chemical cocktail with potential medical applications. "No other amphibian skin can compete with it," he wrote. "Up to 7% of sapo’s weight is in potently active peptides, easily absorbed through burned, inflamed areas of the skin." He explained that among the several dozen peptides found in sapo, seven were bioactive—that number has since been increased to more than six dozen—which meant that each has an affinity and selectivity for binding with receptor sites in humans. The peptide families represented in the dow-kiet! included bradykinins, tachykinins, caerulein, sauvagine, tryptophyllins, dermorphins, and bombesins.
The physical intoxication I described was accounted for by the presence of caerulein and phyllocaerulein. "Side effects observed (in volunteer patients with post-operative intestinal atony) were nausea, vomiting, facial flush, mild heart palpitations, changes in blood pressure, sweating, abdominal discomfort and the urge for defecation."
Phyllomedusin, a new peptide in the tachykinin family—strongly affects the salivary glands, tear ducts, intestines and bowels and contributed to the violent purging I’d experienced. Sauvagine causes a long lasting fall in blood pressure, accompanied by intense heart palpitations and stimulation of the pituitary-adrenal cortex, which contributed to the satiety, heightened sensory perception and increased stamina I’d described. Phyllokinin, a new peptide in the bradykinin family, is a powerful blood bessel dilator and accounted for the rushing in my blood during the initial phase of sapo intoxication.
As to the increased physical strength, lack of hunger and thirst, Erspamer suggested they could be "explained by the presence of caeruelin and sauvagine in the drug."
He didn’t go into the female uses for sapo I wrote about except to note that the same peptides that would cause abdominal discomfort, the urge for defecation and the changes in blood pressure would probably be responsible for its reported abortive uses.
Erspamer later discovered dermorphin and deltorphin peptides that would act similarly to morphine in terms of pain reduction, but which, while 33 and 17 times as strong as pharmaceutical morphine, would not be habit forming because they are bioactive. Your body would simply eliminate what it didn’t need.
The seminal work done on sapo by Erspamer has several pharmaceutical houses exploring a host of hopeful medicines. While the work is kept close to the vest, at least some of it involves non-addictive pain medication. One or more pharmaceutical houses is working on utilizing the novel protein phyllokinin as a carrier for other medicines because it can pass through the blood-brain barrier piggy-backing other molecules. It’s hoped that at some point the phyllokinin might piggy-back medicines for Alzheimer’s and brain cancers.
It’s hoped of course, that if and when those medicines make it to the marketplace the Matses won’t be forgotten. Certainly their intellectual property rights as the first people known to have utilized sapo should count for something; in the real world, however, it may turn out that those companies profiting from the Matses knowledge will need some legal arm twisting to recognize the point of origin for those profits.
In the larger picture, the discover and use of sapo by the Matses, and their willingness to share it with me—who by sheer luck is a writer who was working with a major museum—has proven once again that only arrogance prevents much of the modern world from realizing how much there is to learn from the peoples who live in the remote corners of the world. Our continued rush to Westernize indigenous populations all over the globe has surely led to the disappearance of many medicines and other things that might have proven very valuable to us. And our continued arrogance will cost us many more.

1 comment:

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