People have used plants to protect themselves against disease for thousands of years, and even today at least 80% of people in developing countries use medicinal plants as their primary healthcare.
Professor Kobus Eloff is the founder and leader of the multidisciplinary and collaborative phytomedicine programme at the University of Pretoria (UP). Since 1995, the programme has investigated the therapeutically useful compounds found in plants that grow in South Africa for the benefit of both people and animals.
With a number of research focus areas, the phytomedicine programme's work goes beyond simply isolating bioactive compounds to testing their toxicity and pharmacological action in animals, as well as looking for ways they may be applied in industry or used by people in rural areas.
The programme was designated as a National Research Foundation developed research niche area in 2007. The methods developed by the phytomedicine programme are now used globally, with more than 1000 citations in the international literature.
The multidisciplinary nature of the work incorporates chemistry, botany, microbiology, genetics, zoology, agronomy, toxicology and veterinary science, among other fields. "It involves so many disciplines because there are so many different applications of plant extracts," says Eloff.
Diversity of students
Eloff says the programme caters to a diversity of students, from agronomists to dentists. Over the past 10 years he has delivered 22 PhD and 27 MSc students. Nearly 84% of these students were black, 35% were female and 39% were from outside South Africa, particularly the African continent.
Research areas include microbial and parasitic anti-infective agents, and aspects related to the herbal medicine industry. Several patents have been registered and are under preparation and two commercial products are already on the market.
More recently the phytomedicine programme has focused on the use of plant extracts in animal health and production as well as in plant protection against fungi. "This is due to current gaps in research and strengths within the programme, especially our close ties to the UP faculty of veterinary science," says Eloff.
Although Africa is home to 10% of the world's higher plant species on just 2% of the Earth's surface area, only around 8% of these plant species are used for human and animal medicines. If African medicinal plants were used as intensively as plants from Europe, 22 times more plants would become commercially useful products.
With funding from the European Union Centre for the Development of Enterprise, the phytomedicine programme managed a project that led to the establishment of the Association for African Medicinal Plant Standards (aamps.co.za) and Eloff was its first board chairman. This led to the creation of the first African herbal pharmacopoeia, which sets the standards for the 51 most important indigenous medicinal plants, in collaboration with 30 scientists from 17 different countries.
It was during his time as executive director of the National Botanical Gardens at Kirstenbosch and later as director of research at the National Botanical Institute that Eloff created a programme for plant utilisation. Out of this grew his interest in developing the commercial potential of African plants and the phytomedicine programme.
The programme currently has seven master's students and 16 PhDs. Lecturers from historically disadvantaged universities also visit the phytomedicine programme and then apply its techniques at their universities.