Fostering a sea-change in pharmaceutical development

South Africa’s huge disease burden continues to be of great concern to the government and any efforts to address the situation are good news. For that reason, the new ground being broken in the study of marine microbial organisms as a means of discovering pharmaceuticals for a range of diseases, in particular viral infections such as HIV/Aids, is welcome.

This work is the focus of Professor Rosemary Dorrington at Rhodes University in the Research Chair in Marine Natural Products Research, which she occupied this year.

Her research is closely linked to the search for next generation pharmaceuticals based on the unique properties of microbial symbionts associated with indigenous marine sponges and other invertebrates. Marine organisms are recognised as an important source of new bioactive compounds with potential pharmaceutical and other economically important applications.

The scope of pharmaceutical application is broad, with discoveries pointing to the potential to produce drugs for the treatment of cancers and to use as antibiotics for the treatment of bacterial pathogens and malaria.

The Chair is highly multidisciplinary in nature, involving the fields of chemistry, marine biology, geography and microbiology, which she says is crucial to expanding knowledge across these various groups.

She adds that South Africa is in a unique position to capitalise on its rich marine biodiversity, much of which is still unexplored. Her research group is therefore involved in the exploration of the country’s coastline (from Algoa Bay to De Hoop near Cape Agulhas) for marine organisms that can unlock new knowledge.

Her multidisciplinary approach is important in developing expertise in this field across the different disciplines. She says the country will benefit tremendously from having, for example, chemists with an understanding of molecular biology and biologists who have chemistry skills.