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Since centuries BC, The Grim Reaper has visited the poor and starving of many lands in the innocent guise of the chickling pea: the legume Lathyrus sativus.

It flourishes in conditions of the most devastating flood and drought, when no other food crop survives. An especially hardy plant, the chickling pea historically has served as an inexpensive survival food for the poor of certain developing countries.  The tragic consequences of its consumption may have been recognized as early as the 4th century B.C., but the message has failed to reach those who must consume the foodstuff to survive.  It fills ravenous bellies with good tasting rich protein, boiled as a vegetable, eaten as gruel, or ground into flour to make bread.

In exchange, it exacts a terrible toll, attacking the central nervous system to produce irreversible spasticty.  Early symptoms include walking difficulties, unbearable cramps, and leg weakness.  

Total paralysis is the final visitation of the disease known as Lathyrism.

Consequently, outbreaks of lathyrism have occurred repeatedly throughout history and, today, tens of thousands affected during recent epidemics in Ethiopia, India, and Bangladesh, are permanently crippled.  In parts of Asia and Africa this disease may cripple as many a 2.5 per cent of the population. One such an epidemic occurred in the 1970's, which left one per cent of the people of the vast Gondar region of Ethiopia permanently crippled.  Families, even whole communities, are often deprived of their breadwinners, and unable to continue the struggle against starvation.  


The neurotoxic amino acid BOAA has been identified as the constituent of the chickling pea responsible for the disease.

In its brief existence, the Third World Medical Research Foundation took the lead in an ambitious research program into the characteristics and prevalence patterns of  Lathyrus sativus.  The organization has worked tirelessly to promote the need for a toxin-free, wholly nutritious strain of the legume.

The program included a major study in Ethiopia.  Laboratory and fieldwork was planned as a matter of urgency in India and Bangladesh.  

The successful development of an entirely safe high protein food staple resistant to drought and flood was, and still is, potentially revolutionary.  Savings in human suffering could be unprecedented.  Savings in Western aid can be great in proportion.

Breakthroughs in our understanding of related Western neurological diseases, such as the motor neuron disease, Parkinson's, and Alzheimer's, can be greatly speeded through our work on Lathyrism.


TWMRF's Ethiopian study was launched with a grant from Band Aid, for which we are deeply grateful.

  In India, Bangladesh and Nepal, the cost of conducting a social/agronomic/medical investigation of local knowledge, practice and experience with Lathyrus sativus and Lathyrism, and laying the    ground work for the introduction of zero-BOAA strains into these three countries is as follows:    

India $200,000 a year for three (3) years 

 Bangladesh $200,000 a year for three (3) year  

 Nepal $100,000 a year for three(3) years

Figures include salaries of local social/ medical/ agronomic researchers, laboratory back-up, supplies, equipment; travel, office rental and administration costs.



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Last modified: November 01, 2004


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