"So we believe that when we drop this pectin into a wound, it forms a soft gel and then binds the growth factors and makes them persist for much longer," Tizard says. "The effect we see is a significant acceleration of wound healing."
The healing power is particularly potent for older victims, he says. Rats and pigs used in research are usually young, healthy animals, and "they heal pretty darn well anyway," he says. So well, in fact, that it was hard to tell much difference when aloe vera was used.
So the researchers switched to older animals and found a significant improvement.
Wounds that normally would take three weeks to heal actually healed in two, he says.
That's important, he adds, because the kinds of wounds that aloe vera seems to work best on are commonly associated with old age, like bed sores and pressure ulcers.
All of which brings us to this question: How did those ancient folks figure out that this otherwise unspectacular plant could do such spectacular things for them?
Not an AIDS, Cancer Cure
Most likely it was just because the gel from the leaf of the plant just feels good to the touch. It's a bit slimy, but it's cool and moisturizing. In time someone thousands of years ago stumbled across the fact that it also lessened the sting of the wasp, or a cut on the hand.
Of course, that begs the question of how somebody thousands of years ago discovered the other miracle cure that aloe vera has to offer. The rind makes an effective laxative, apparently because it irritates the heck out of the digestive track.
But it doesn't do as much for us as some people think. Tizard got into the research at the request of a Dallas company that was marketing an aloe vera drink. "They found they couldn't keep it in stock," he says.
The company did a little research and found that the drink was in great demand among AIDS patients because they thought it was doing them some good.
"So they started a research program to see if that might be the case, and that's where I got involved in it," he says.
Unfortunately, a clinical trial revealed that "it didn't do any good," he says.
Likewise for cancer, although some still claim that the plant is a good anti-cancer agent.
But of course we still don't know all the answers. It has taken at least 4,000 years just to get this far.
Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.