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Five people are sitting cross-legged on the floor in a circle, looking down at their white pails with trepidation. “Remember throughout, you have four things to guide you: your posture, your water, your breath — and your bucket,” the practitioner reassuringly tells the room.
“Using a stick of incense, I will burn a small hole in your skin, just enough to burn off the outer layer of the epidermis. I’ll then put a dab of kambo on the exposed tissue, or ‘gateways,’ usually three or four spots, depending on how easily you react.”
I’m at a modest apartment in suburban London, quietly observing a small group that has gathered to experience an exotic form of medicine exported from the rainforests of South America. Kambo is the dried skin secretion of Phyllomedusa bicolor, or the waxy-monkey tree frog. Sitting in wait on a small wooden palette, the substance looks like a few blobs of craft glue.
The group shares their reasons for being here. This is not the stereotypical middle-class, New Age, ayahuasca crowd, all flowing white robes and ornate jewelry. Two of the women are working-class Colombians, dressed in sportswear and sneakers, and though they haven’t taken kambo before, they had heard about it years ago, back home.
“I’m here for my health — I’ve had liver problems,” says the first, a middle-aged woman working as a nanny in London. The second woman also works for a wealthy family in the city. “I want to achieve clarity of mind,” she tells the group. A younger man says he’s taken kambo five times before. “I’ve done ayahuasca, and that had some benefits, but with this I can get the physical cleanse without the exhausting psychological experience,” he says.
The host spends the next hour explaining the history of kambo and how the session will proceed. “I have prepared two liters of lukewarm water for each of you,” he says. “First thing is for you to drink five pints of it. After I apply the kambo, your temperature will begin to rise pretty quickly, and the purging should start within a few minutes.”
It takes about seven minutes for the first person to start vomiting. When the participants have all finished, it seems as though every organ in their bodies has been strained. Pouring with sweat, red in the face and panting, each of them looks indescribably relieved when it is over. They all have swollen lips, bags under their eyes, and puffy cheeks. “We call that ‘being kissed by the frog,’” our host says, chuckling.
He gently lays blankets over each of them as they rest on the floor, then prepares vegetable soup and fruit. And that’s it. The entire ceremony lasts just a few hours, with the actual vomiting taking just 15 minutes.
The tribes in South America that use kambo — the Katukina and the Matsis — claim it improves strength, endurance, alertness, and clarity. They call it the “warrior drug” and “the vaccine of the forest.” As an experience, it is perhaps more comparable to acupuncture or shiatsu than to ayahuasca and peyote, even though it is often grouped together with other traditional medicaments from the New World. Unlike ayahuasca, which involves hallucinatory visions and requires overnight watchfulness, kambo is quick and has no psychedelic effects: It is a purely physical experience.
The substance’s modern, urban proponents, meanwhile, tout it as a cure-all for everything from skin ailments to the common cold and even terminal illnesses. Among their many zealous claims: The substance can boost the immune system, increase fertility, detoxify the liver, alleviate acne and allergies, clean out the gall bladder, help with arthritis and chronic pain, relieve menstrual cramps — and even potentially fight cancer, hepatitis C and HIV. Some macho enthusiasts say the “reset and reformat” of the drug has “boosted their gym sessions” and that “you just stop getting sick.”
Few, if any, of these benefits are backed by hard scientific research, and many are surely overblown. Experts studying kambo and related substances, however, say they may indeed have legitimate and powerful medical potential, and new studies are underway to explore just that.
Amphibians have long been of interest to biologists. As the oldest group of vertebrates on land, amphibians have had more time to adapt to their largely freshwater environments, and some species have developed unique abilities — replacing lost limbs, breeding eggs on their backs or stomachs, secreting venom, and producing a rainbow of compounds on their skin that can kill parasites, viruses, bacteria, and fungi.
In 1986, Italian chemist Vittorio Erspamer, who has been nominated twice for the Nobel Prize, said the skin secretions of Phyllomedusinae tree frogs, a family that includes the kambo frog, “displayed the greatest variety and abundance of active peptides found in any amphibian.”
Peptides are tiny proteins that act as signaling molecules, allowing cells to communicate with each other. Oxytocin (the “cuddle chemical”), vasopressin (which regulates water retention by the kidneys), and insulin (crucial for blood sugar regulation) are all peptides. Scientists developed insulin in the 1920s by extracting it from cattle. More than 60 peptides are already used in medicine and another 150 are in development.
When it comes to peptides, few animals seem to have as much to offer as frogs, whose skin can contain not just dozens but hundreds of the tiny proteins. Esparmer examined samples from more than 200 South American amphibians to see if they produced peptides that could contract muscles, affect blood pressure, or influence the nervous system and described Phyllomedusinae tree frogs in particular as a “treasure trove.”
“There are loads of antimicrobial, anti-cancer, anti-parasitic, vasodilator peptides [which dilate blood vessels and reduce blood pressure] — you name it, it’s there,” adds Christopher Shaw, a professor at the School of Pharmacy and Molecular Therapeutics at Queen’s University Belfast who has been studying peptides in the skin of a variety of frogs for decades. “Frog skin secretions contain natural peptide libraries, which we think are akin to our own antibody-producing systems. If you look long enough at amphibian skin peptides, you will find drugs for anything you want to find — and a lot more besides.”
In kambo, scientists have already identified a wide range of powerful peptides: phyllomedusin and phyllokinin, both extremely strong vasodilators; phyllocaerulein, which stimulates the adrenal cortex and pituitary gland; sauvagine, which acts on the nervous system; adenoregulin, a potent antimicrobial; deltorphin and delmorphin, both powerful opioids said to be 4,000 times stronger than morphine; and perhaps most exciting, the dermaseptins, which not only are powerful antimicrobials but also have been shown in cell studies to have powerful anti-cancer activity.
Shaw says it is possible that the ingredients in kambo may someday play a part in doing some of the things its proponents claim — including treating cancer, hepatitis C, and HIV. His research on the skin secretions of other species of frogs has found peptides that can inhibit the growth of lung cancer cells and colorectal cancer cells, plus a variety of other peptides that have powerful antimicrobial and anticancer properties.
In time, scientists could create synthetic chemical analogs of the relevant substances, which has already been done with the venom of other animals. Work on lizards has led to a whole new class of drugs for Type 2 diabetes; a powerful painkiller called ziconitide has been created from cone snails; anti-hypertensive drugs have been based on snake venom; and scorpions have given us, believe it or not, a drug used to treat brain cancer.
And yet, of course, there is a tremendous difference between theoretical therapies for serious diseases based on limited scientific research and safe, proven, and regulated treatments. Kambo is a long way away from that.
For now, experts advise caution. Shaw points out that the batch taken from every frog will vary depending on the age of the frog, how stressed it is, and what it has been exposed to. “Kambo is the biological equivalent of a nuclear weapon — it’s a gamble taking it every time you do,” he says.
Kambo is known to have caused several deaths. A 42-year-old Italian man died from a heart attack shortly after taking the drug in 2017, a 52-year-old Brazilian man died in 2008, and a 39-year-old Australian woman died after a ceremony in March this year. A few studies have also indicated there could be sublethal but serious side effects in regular users, such as psychosis and toxic hepatitis.
The experts Elemental spoke to all acknowledged rising awareness and experimental use of kambo, though there has been no formal research into exactly how widely it is being used. The apparent growing interest may have something to do with the trends for cleansing, detoxing, and the like, says Mike Tyler, an associate professor at the University of Adelaide in Australia. He has published a paper showing that so-called caerin 1 peptides from a variety of frogs can combat the transmission of the HIV virus in cell culture studies.
Then there are questions about the frogs’ welfare. In the 1950s and 1960s, the African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis) was dispersed around the world by people who were using it for pregnancy tests; if a pregnant woman’s urine was injected into the frogs, they would spawn. The international trade in the African frogs inadvertently released a deadly fungus called chytrid into the wild around the world and led to the extinction of more than 200 frog species. Frogs are also sensitive to pesticides and other pollutants, with more than 40% of species listed as in decline.
Despite all the risks and challenges involved, Tyler believes frog research holds extraordinary promise. “What sorts of drugs could we make from frogs?” he says. “Honestly, the sky’s the limit.”