SINGAPORE - Its leaves look like shoots of wild grass and its stem appears plastic-like.
Nothing about this fruitless plant stands out. And it's not surprising if most people mistake it for something worthless.
Yet this unassuming plant - called the Sabah Snake Grass, or Clinacanthus nutans - is highly prized in Singapore.
Sabah Snake Grass - named for its initial use in treating snake bites - is worth its weight in gold because its claim to be a cure for cancer.
Despite these claims, which come amid anecdotes of its curative properties, there has not been any scientific proof that the herb has any actual effect on cancer.
One nursery owner in Pasir Ris in particular has watched with amazement as demand for the plant has slithered upwards in just four years.
Mr Alan Loh, 67, tells The New Paper on Sunday: "More than five years ago, nobody asked for it."
Only a small group of people with kidney problems bought the Sabah Snake Grass initially from Mr Loh.
He says: "At its peak two years ago, the demand grew from almost zero to about 10 customers each day asking or wanting to buy the plant from me. I often ran out of stock."
Mr Loh said the popularity of the herb can be traced back to the story of a Malaysian's miraculous recovery from Stage 4 thyroid cancer.
The man, Mr Liu Hui Lian from Perak, was told by doctors in 2008 that he had only three months to live.
Every medical treatment he tried proved futile until he found out about Sabah Snake Grass. After five months of consuming the leaves, he claims that his cancer had disappeared, he tells TNPS in a telephone interview this week.
Mr Liu, 58, says in Malay: "This March will be the fifth year that my cancer has not returned. It's a bonus for me and there's a good chance I'm totally cured."
After Mr Liu's story was covered by several Chinese newspapers and a TV station in Malaysia, the plant's popularity soared.
A website - www.sabahsnakegrassfarm.com - by another farm owner in Seremban, Malaysia, documents Mr Liu's medical history from diagnosis to an apparent improvement shown in a medical examination taken in 2009.
To date, that site has garnered 97,000 views from 90 countries.
Malaysians make up 56 per cent of those who had visited the site while Singaporeans, the second largest group, make up 18 per cent.
Now, Mr Liu runs an eight-acre farm - about the size of eight football fields - that grows the herb. He usually gives away small samples to cancer sufferers.
He also teaches them how to replant the herb in their gardens.
Mr Liu says: "If you believe (that you can be cured after consuming the herb), half the battle is won. You're on the way to being cured like me."
Yet, some medical professionals here remain unconvinced. Medically, there's no "magic bullet" for cancer, they say.
Still, Mr Liu's story has led to a healthy demand here as well, said the general manager of Hua Hng Trading, a plant and tree wholesale centre off Sembawang Road, who gave her name as Madam Ang.
The woman, in her 50s, says: "Five years ago, I stocked 50 small pots of Sabah Snake Grass at any one time.
"Today, I stock close to 1,000 pots."
Smaller nurseries, like Mr Loh's outfit in Jalan Loyang Besar, have also hopped on the bandwagon.
At his nursery, roughly the size of two basketball courts, seven small plots are devoted to Sabah Snake Grass harvesting.
He sells three pots for $10 while its leaves can be bought for $30 per kg.
Mr Loh isn't the only one peddling the plant.
There are other herb farms and several online "agents" here selling the Sabah Snake Grass. About four other nurseries here supply the plant at wholesale quantities, says Mr Loh.
Those who consume the Sabah Snake Grass usually blend the leaves with green apple juice.
"You could also eat it raw," says Mr Loh, handing this reporter a leaf he had plucked from a potted plant.
There wasn't any nasty aftertaste.
How much to consume depends on which stage of cancer the sufferer is in, says Mr Loh.
"European tourists have visited me asking how to grow the plant in their gardens."
He claims: "One old man, a cancer sufferer, came in a wheelchair but three weeks later, after consuming the Sabah Snake Grass, he walks into my garden without any help.
"I'm not a doctor but I see that they've regained their strength and appear more comfortable."
Snake grass may bring false hope to cancer patients
Snake grass may bring false hope to cancer patients
What do you tell a child when her life may be cut short?
That's the question plaguing a mother whose daughter suffers from stomach cancer.
To Niki Ng, seven, and her mother, Mrs Ng from Taiping, Perak, the Sabah Snake Grass is a godsend.
Speaking to The New Paper on Sunday over the phone from Mr Liu Hui Lian's farm, Mrs Ng, 38, says in Malay: "I just want her to lead a normal life like other children. The herb represents hope for us."
Niki was diagnosed with the gastric carcinoma in September last year, and had undergone chemotherapy without success.
After consuming Sabah Snake Grass in November, Niki's 5cm polyp began to shrink, claims Mrs Ng.
Yet, such herbal treatments aren't all proven remedies, say medical professionals here.
Says Ms Joanna Liew, 28, a registered physician at Bao Zhong Tang TCM Centre: "The danger here is that what works for one person, may not work for another.
"There is also no 'magic bullet' in the treatment of cancer."
Dr Wong Seng Weng, Medical Director & Consultant Medical Oncologist at The Cancer Centre says that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had previously approved a herbal treatment for advanced prostate cancer.
Unfortunately the approval was withdrawn.
This was due to serious problems with the quality control in the production of the herbal preparation including contamination with arsenic, says Dr Wong.
He adds: "No alternative therapies for cancer has been approved by FDA since."
Some of Dr Wong's patients have tried the Sabah Snake Grass. However, his findings may be hard to swallow.
He says: "All (his patients who consumed the Sabah Snake Grass) experienced worsening of their cancers. Hence my personal observation of the effects of Sabah Snake Grass has been very negative."
Similarly, the Health Sciences Authority (HSA) says that it is "not aware of any scientific evidence that substantiates the medical use of Sabah Snake Grass in the treatment of cancer."
Like Dr Wong, HSA reminds cancer patients to exercise caution.
Says Dr Wong: "Patients with an incurable disease may be in a state of emotional desperation and can be very vulnerable to people peddling false hope."
What's important in the treatment of cancers is its early detection, says Ms Liew, 28.
"I have heard of many horror stories of people delaying cancer treatment," she says.
She adds that the longer the patient waits in making a treatment decision, the lower the chances of success.
Other snake-related eats
Snake gall bladder
The gall bladder of a snake, believed to help cleanse blood and detoxify the body, can be found in traditional Chinese medical halls here.
"It is not popular with locals, but mainland Chinese, especially those from Fujian and Xiamen, seem to like it," says a Thye Shan Medical Hall spokesman.
It is also known to alleviate rheumatism, she adds.
Snake gall bladder is mostly imported from countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, and India, and is typically consumed after soaked in wine.
The teardrop-shaped ingredient, which is sold in a dried form at medical halls, can also be sliced and cooked before being eaten.
It costs a hefty $200 to $400 per 100g, depending on the grade, says the spokesman.
Also known as salak, this fruit has reddish-brown, prickly skin that resembles that of a snake.
The skin breaks away to reveal lobes of white, juicy flesh, which tastes like a combination of honey and pineapple.
The fruit grows in Indonesia, Brunei, and Malaysia. Finely sliced, it makes a great ingredient in salads, and packs a big dose of vitamin C.
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