Profil Usahawan Pilihan
Terbitan : Ogos 2004
Syarikat : Healwell Pharmaceuticals Sdn Bhd.
Healing power of gamat
Golden sea cucumber or gamat is a traditional medicine of the Malays. For over 500 years, Malays, particularly of the northern region of the peninsula, use gamat as a folk remedy for various ailments.
Royal families and Pulau Langkawi’s legendary Mahsuri purportedly used air gamat (literally gamat water) and clay as a beauty mask. This is because gamat is also believed to give skin a soft and smooth texture. Nowadays, the use of gamat is more widespread.
The Malays boil and drink air gamat to treat cuts, sores and inflammation, peptic ulcers or to revitalise the body. Mothers who had recently given birth also take gamat for quick healing.
As a young boy, Prof Hassan Yaacob, 47, had heard about gamat but didn’t think much of it. As a researcher with the Department of Pharmacology, Universiti Malaya, he was sceptical about its healing powers.
But when he saw how his grandmother’s wound had been healed after taking gamat, he decided to do research on it.
“In 1989, I had just returned from England and heard someone groaning in our house in Kota Baru. I learnt that my grandmother was in pain as she had just undergone a laparectomy (operation to remove part of the wall of the abdomen),” says Prof Hassan, a PhD holder in clinical pharmacology from the Royal College of Surgeons of England, who at that time had just returned after nine years abroad.
Her agony was due to an infected wound. Prof Hassan advised her to get the wound cleaned and re-stitched but she was reluctant.
“Elderly kampung folk are afraid of going to the hospital. It’s taboo to go against their wishes if they do not want to go,” he says.
A few days later, Prof Hassan found that his grandmother’s wound had “dried” up and she was no longer in pain. She had taken air gamat.
He became curious and asked his mother for the recipe for air gamat, a stinky and fishy concoction.
“Put four to five sea cucumbers in a pot of water and boil for a few hours. The stench of the gamat would stink up the whole house like frying ikan kering (salted fish),” says Prof Hassan with a laugh at an interview in his office in Shah Alam. He resigned from Universiti Malaya in 1998 to become an entrepreneur in products based on purified gamat extracts.
The Chinese eat sea cucumber as a delicacy, stewing them, stuffing them and adding them to “superior” seafood soups. Whilst urban Malays do not eat gamat, those from the coastal areas of Pulau Langkawi and Pulau Pangkor enjoy gamat in kerabu (a salad). Tiny pieces of the sea cucumber are blanched, cut into small pieces and tossed with spices.
“When gutting gamat, some nenek (Malay for grandmother) would slurp down the yellowish mucus from the intestine of the sea cucumber with gusto. They claim that it is good for energy,” says Prof Hassan squeamishly.
When he joined Universiti Malaya as a lecturer in September 1989, Prof Hassan discussed gamat with several lecturers. Gradually, he felt inspired to go out to sea to learn more about it.
In November 1989, his first pilot study on gamat, which the locals also refer to as lintah laut (sea leech), in Pulau Pangkor met with failure. He was in high spirits after collecting some sea cucumber from several dives only to learn from the boat owner that they were not gamat.
“There are some 29 varieties of sea cucumber in Malaysia and more than 180 varieties worldwide, but not all are gamat. Only one species, Stichopus horrens, or the golden sea cucumber, is gamat,” he says.
Seven months later, he visited a gamat producer in Pulau Pangkor to find out how gamat was harvested and how its extract was made.
In 1990, he obtained a grant for Intensive Research in Priority Areas from the Science, Technology and Environment Ministry to study gamat. The research used more than RM500,000.
Prof Hassan went off to Pulau Pangkor again. This time, he discovered a sub-species of sea cucumber, which is reddish with yellow tentacles.
In the laboratory, he boiled several kilograms of gamat and partially purified the extract to remove salt and saponin as well as reduce its smell. Saponin, says Prof Hassan, is not good for the body system, especially the heart muscles as it causes constriction of blood vessels, thereby preventing and reducing blood flow.
He conducted tests with rabbits using gamat extract. Wounds on rabbits treated with gamat dried up on the second day while those left untreated had infected wounds, and the wounds of rabbits treated with iodine were still wet. Rabbits given gamat extract orally also showed marked improvement. By observing the behaviour of the animals, he concluded gamat is a powerful painkiller.
In 1994, Prof Hassan won a gold medal at Mindex for his research on sea cucumber (gamat) as a potential therapeutic, wound-healing and anti-inflammatory agent. In the same year, he was presented with an International Union of Pharmacology Congress Award in Montreal, Canada, for his research on gamat and blood vessels. The award included cash and an air ticket to Montreal to present his research studies.
A year later, he applied for a Hitachi Research Fellowship Award (from Hitachi Scholarship Foundation) through Universiti Malaya and got the award based on his “outstanding research and contribution in the development of gamat-based products”.
He says: “Once a year, only one award is given out in South-East Asia for scientific research. The award offered me a chance to undertake any scientific research I wanted in Japan for a year.” He was given RM10,000 monthly allowance and all research expenses were borne by the foundation.
He decided to continue his research on how gamat can activate cell proliferation at the Research Institute for Traditional Medicine in Toyama, Japan.
As researcher and external professor to the Medical and Pharmaceutical University of Toyama, Sugitani, Prof Hassan produces articles and publications in academic journals and travels there every three or four months. He also receives professors and supervises students from Japan who consult him in research work on gamat.
In Japan, gamat saved a life. A Japanese professor decided to test oral gamat on a 24-year-old girl who was in a coma due to the degeneration of her right lung at the University of Kyoto Hospital.
Prof Hassan says: “Investigations showed that the girl’s lungs had collapsed and she had a slim chance of survival. She was given antibiotics and steroids but did not respond to treatment.
“After giving her gamat through intranasal drip, the girl blinked her eyes in less than 24 hours. After five days, she showed signs of recovery. Three weeks later, she was discharged and new X-rays showed that her lung had rejuvenated.”
After 10 years of research in Universiti Malaya and the Japanese universities, Prof Hassan says that they have discovered the active substance in gamat and the mechanism of its action.
“Besides its proven efficacy in enhancing the body’s resistance towards various diseases, it is also known that it contains a cell-growth factor that has the ability to accelerate the regeneration of biological cells, bone, collagen and rejuvenate skin,” he says.
“We’ve now refined the extract and come up with new generations of scientifically prepared products based on this purified substance.”
In 1996, Prof Hassan set up Healwell Pharmaceuticals Sdn Bhd in Shah Alam. He is executive chairman and director of Healwell and Eastern Biotech Resources Sdn Bhd, a local company dealing in production and consultation of gamat and anti-ageing skincare products. He is also chairman of Dermatech Sdn Bhd, a joint local and Singaporean company exporting cosmetic products to the United States.
The company manufactures health supplements and skin and body care products based on purified gamat extract. Prof Hassan claims that gamat also behaves like an aphrodisiac and has “anti-ageing” properties. To date, the company has 34 gamat products and is exporting them to Japan, Jakarta, Dubai and Bahrain. Three new markets are China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Healwell products, he says, are manufactured using gamat cultivated in two “secret locations” on Malaysian islands. Cultivation began some five years ago. The sea cucumbers are processed and purified into a white powder before being used in product manufacturing.