It's the leading cause of blindness. Macular Degeneration of the retina is occurring in epidemic proportions -1 in 3 of us, mainly over 60s, have this devastating disease. Neil Grieve's advanced loss of sight affects virtually everything he does.
“If you are driving you can't see the car in front of you. You can't read, everything from television, operating a computer, making a phone call, you can't see numbers you're not the same person anymore.” Said Neil
But now, nature to the rescue. This ancient spice, delicate threads of saffron from the crocus sativus flower, is getting amazing results - restoring sight in early-stage macular degeneration sufferers.
Doctors believe they've struck gold with saffron. This tiny stigma is full of antioxidants, rich nutrients that regenerate cells and prevent damage to the retina.
Dr Jonathan Stone, Professor of Retinal and Cerebral Neurobiology, at University of Sydney's Faculty of Medicine.
“It is inducing the cells which are still in the retina which are damaged and non-functional to start to repair themselves and start to function and to be resistant to further degeneration.”
Dr Jonathan Stone has been conducting animal and human experiments with saffron, after successful trials by Italian scientists showed all patients had improved vision while taking small doses of saffron.
“It is a bit the opposite of what viruses do. Viruses get in and make the cells sick and reproduce the virus. These get in and make the cells repair themselves, and in small amounts obviously, can get many cells to self-repair.” Said Dr Jonathon Stone
It’s weight for weight has more antioxidants in it than any other product known to man… So saffron really packs a powerful punch.
Nicky and Terry Noonan's Tas-Saf farm near Hobart, Tasmania, began cultivating saffron for gourmet outlets, restaurants and supermarkets in Australia and for export to many countries. But now they're also busy supplying Sydney University for their macular degeneration experiments.
“We hope for this season to produce 50,000 flowers which would equate to about a quarter of a kilo of saffron. Next year we should go 500,000 flowers.” Said Nicky
Flower stamen…it's labour-intensive, painstaking work, handpicking the flowers over 40 days of blooming ... extracting the magic medicine, the glowing red stigma, then drying it to produce the saffron. It takes an hour to produce just 2 grams.
This is about a quarter of a kilo and would be worth retail value about $25,000.
Saffron's up there with gold in the price stakes. Equating to as much as $125,000 a kilogram at the supermarket, it's packed in these affordable 100 mg containers. But the saffron for these critical macular degeneration experiments must be the very best.
Dr John Grigg, Associate Professor at Sydney University's Save Sight Institute. “This is a proper randomised double blind trial meaning that people are either given the medicine or not given the saffron and they don't know who's getting it and the investigators don't know either so it's a good way of finding out if saffron has a good effect.”
Dr John Grigg, Associate Professor at Sydney University's Save Sight Institute is conducting regular tests on patients. They're given the equivalent of 8 strands or 20 milligrams a day, all that's needed the cost of a cup of coffee.
“Saffron is a very good antioxidant. The early studies show that it will help protect vision. It's also important to reduce other risk factors by stopping smoking, cause if you keep smoking while consuming antioxidants they counteract each other, so reduce risk factors, have a diet that's high in antioxidants, high in omega 3 fatty acids.” Said Dr John Grigg
For people with the advanced, aggressive form of macular degeneration, like Neil Grieve, various treatments are being trailed. There's photo dynamic therapy laser treatment that destroys the unhealthy blood vessels that cause loss of sight. And for Neil, a drug that's injected straight into the eye is helping to restore some vision and prevent deterioration.
“There's a way to go before conclusive proof that saffron works, and it hasn't been trialled in late stage patients, but so far its antioxidant riches continue to get results for those in early stages of macular degeneration.”
“The outcome there was remarkable because those patients are reported to have significant, although partial recovery of vision, and then stability for 12-15 months afterwards.” Said Dr Grigg.
A word of caution… Just because this is good for you doesn't mean you can have as much as you like. Too much can be detrimental to your health.
“It is a labour of love, definitely a labour of love we are very, very proud that today we are supplying our saffron for use in medicinal trials. It is just fantastic.” Said Nikky
Nicky and Terry Noonan: Tas-Saff saffron growers. Their Extra Category 1 top quality saffron is sold under the HOYTS label, available in some supermarkets and health-food stores.