After almost 50 years of research and investment, the University is gearing up for mass production of the “tunkin” or “Dominican bean,” a known herbal remedy for skin ailments, not for profit, but to help economically challenged Filipinos.

According to Fortunato Sevilla III, assistant to the rector for research and development, medical products from the tunkin are nearly set for commercialization.

“We have already determined the effects of tunkin seed. At the moment, one of our priorities is to get its intellectual property rights,” he said.

The seed is already patented. But selling consumer products like ointments from the seeds over drug store counters would still take time.

“Year 2011 is a good target (for commercialization) but we still do not know how long the process will take,” he said. “We just have to look for an investor to undertake (commercialization), keeping in mind the University’s purpose of bringing this medicine to the poor. It is just a matter of convincing investors.”

Based on studies and clinical trials, tunkin seed extracts are useful remedies to prevent secondary infections in common types of skin ailments like cuts, wounds, burns, insect bites, itchy skin, dry eczematous patches, erotions and ulcerations, and other skin irritations.

Unraveling tunkin

Tunkin, scientifically known as Ipomoea muricata, had been well-studied in terms of its identity, structure, chemical properties, pharmaceutical use, and biological activity by researchers from the Faculty of Pharmacy, College of Science, and the Research Center for the Natural Sciences, according to Beatrice Guevara, head of the tunkin seed research team.

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“We were able to elucidate its structure and determine its biological activities through researches done here and abroad, where more advanced equipment could be used for analysis,” she said.

Guevara tried to discover the active components that give the seeds antibacterial and analgesic properties. She was able to discover that seed extracts have a strong antibacterial effect particularly against gram-positive Staphylococcus aureus, a pathogenic microorganism that can cause food poisoning, boils, pneumonia, meningitis, and urinary tract infections; and Bacillus subtilis, which causes spoilage in canned foods and food poisoning.

Taking off from Guevara’s study, Maribel Nonato, dean of the College of Science and a member of Guevara’s research team, worked on the other unidentified compositions of the seeds and their antibacterial constituents.

Another researcher, Mafel Ysrael, assistant director of the Office for Academic Affairs, also worked on other components of the tunkin, in a study that documented its other medicinal properties.

“I isolated the anti-tubercular components, other antibiotic properties, and alkaloid structures that were still not identified by the previous works of Drs. Nonato and Guevara,” Ysrael told the Varsitarian.

Although the tunkin had been extensively studied, a clinician was still needed to verify its effectiveness.

“Then came Dr. Perpetua Reyes-Javier, a Thomasian dermatologist. She tested the tunkin formulated by pharmacists to her patients and found it to be very effective in curing skin ailments,” Guevara said.

Further researches may still be performed to explore other biological properties of the tunkin seed, she added.

“There are reports that when ingested, it can cure cancers of the stomach. Further research could be done to confirm this and determine its anti-cancer properties,” Guevara said.

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Ysrael agreed that research must continue to improve the tunkin seed ointment, particularly its dark brown color to make it “marketable,” and to explore its other properties.

“Studies may also be performed to investigate tunkin seed’s anti-allergic components. Improvement of the analgesic properties of its alkaloids as well as its color are still left to be done as well,” she said.

Tracing tunkin’s roots

Also commonly known as “evening glory,” the tunkin has long been used by Dominican friars in the Philippines for medicinal purposes since they discovered the seed’s properties as a first-aid treatment from the Vietnamese during a mission in Tonkin, Vietnam (then called French Indochina) in the late 19th century.

In his 1928 book, Dominican researcher Fr. Domingo Andres, O.P. described tunkin as a seed-bearing flower like campanillas (bells). Andres noted in his book that tunkin seeds, stems and leaves are effective against skin ailments like chronic and infected wounds, cuts, and blisters due to burns. Oil extracted from tunkin can also relieve stomach pain and earaches.

Priests of the Dominican Priory in Manaoag, Pangasinan have been raising the plant since 1931. They found the tunkin seed’s oil extract to have analgesic and antiseptic effects, so they brought it to UST for cultivation.

“It was Fr. Teodulo Cajigal, O.P. from Manaoag who told me about tunkin. He personally used tunkin for several ailments because for him it can cure various ailments,” Guevara told the Varsitarian. “We, as scientists, documented his anecdotes and verified his claims.”

After cultivating the tunkin at the UST Botanical Garden, Fr. Lorenzo Rodriguez, O.P., then dean of the Faculty of Pharmacy, became interested in its medical properties.

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In the 1950s, Jose Lugay, Jr., a UST researcher, and Norma Lerma, former Pharmacy dean, further conducted studies to discover the antibacterial and antifungal properties of the plant.

This paved the way for newer researches on the tunkin by Thomasian scientists Guevara, Nonato, and Ysrael. Alena Pias P. Bantolo and Arian Anderson R. Rabino

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