Natural meds could boost economy

Traditional medicines. (Madelene Cronjé)

Traditional medicines. (Madelene Cronjé)

Professor Alvaro Viljoen of the department of pharmaceutical sciences at the Tshwane University of Technology is exploring an area that has grown in prominence over the past number of years. 

His Phytomedicine Research Chair that started operating in 2013, draws on the country’s rich biodiversity and aims to unlock the potential for the commercialisation of a range of natural remedies from indigenous plants.

He says that the popularity of this area of research can be measured in his current group of 30 postdoctoral students. The country’s standing in this regard is also reflected in a number of them being international students, particularly from India, which has a strong history of natural medicines.

Viljoen believes that this body of students is important in growing local expertise in the field of neutraceuticals. Not only because of consumer interest and demand for traditional medicines, but particularly to meet the requirements from the health department that herbal products be regulated to ensure their safety, efficacy and quality.

One of the key objectives of his Research Chair is to develop appropriate skills to produce suitably qualified phytomedicine scientists able to conduct quality control of these medicines.

He explains that in spite of these pharmaceutical compounds being based on natural products they are very complex and scientifically challenging. Sophisticated equipment and methodologies are therefore required to ensure that products containing pharmacologically active compounds meet the highest quality standards — not only regarding the final product, but also in terms of the raw materials they are drawn from.

The safety of natural remedies is of paramount importance and the research intends not only to identify the potential for naturally occurring toxicity, but also to make recommendations concerning formulation and dosage of the drugs.

He says his research projects therefore generate a massive amount of analytical data that is mined to identify patterns that allow the selection of chemotypes that display superior bioactivity. 

This analytical approach is also used to explore potential similarities and differences between cultivated and wild harvested material and addressing concerns about conservation and sustainability. 

Importance of traditional remedies

Apart from the medicinal and safety aspects of herbal remedies, Viljoen says consumer perceptions and acceptance also have to be addressed. This relates to the quality control objective which includes ensuring that batches are consistent in colour and formulation, as well as dosage.

He adds that the Chair plays an important role in taking advantage of the strong local demand for natural and traditional remedies, while establishing the discipline as a respected, trusted member of the pharmaceutical industry. 

Viljoen says that apart from these responsibilities, the Chair is also making valuable contributions to the development of standards for traditional medicines – again at both the source level and for the manufactured compounds.

To this end, his research team has already identified the most popular herbal remedies that have been commercialised, and studied their chemical profiles. The end goal is to produce a publicly available database, providing researchers and patients an electronic platform to verify chemical profiles and physical identification with medication they have received.

He says that as many as 60% of South Africa’s black population use traditional medicine as their primary source of healthcare, which presents a substantial opportunity. 

Given this opportunity, he hopes that the work done in the Chair will  combat the unjustified stigma associated with natural remedies — the removal of  pharmacognosy  from the pharmacy conducted at South African universities bears testimony to the poor image of medicinal plants amongst the medical fraternity.

An unintended consequence of this, he suggests, is that pharmacists are not qualified to properly advise patients interested in natural medication. 

The work of Professor Ben-Erik van Wyk at the University of Johannesburg overlaps with Viljoen’s in that it touches on natural remedies drawn from South Africa’s rich biodiversity, although he is more concerned with documenting and archiving a rapidly depleting indigenous knowledge base.

His Indigenous Plant Use Research Chair is more concerned with ethnobotany, which he says fulfills an urgent need to study, record, analyse and protect indigenous knowledge about the uses of plants. 

This knowledge, he says, is not only an almost unlimited source of new ideas for future product and crop development, but also as a contribution to the botanical and cultural heritage of the country.

The research work conducted through the Chair is both fundamental research into the basic taxonomy, pharmacognosy, anatomy, chemosystematics and molecular systematics of medicinal and other useful plants, as well as how indigenous people use plants.

He explains that this research is not only of scientific importance, but also socially as it contributes to the knowledge base of the molecular and chemical relationships of African plants, their traditional uses and future potential as new products. 

This, he says, is a pre-requisite for commercial innovations that have the potential to make an important contribution to an indigenous bio-economy.

The work is also important for ethnobotanical reasons in documenting and conserving vernacular plant names, cultural diversity and cultural heritage. By the same token this knowledge is important to elevating the relevance of indigenous knowledge systems that could be introduced into the school curriculum, and thereby contribute to economic growth, employment and competitiveness in a knowledge-based economy.

Preserving history

His main area of focus is on the Cape flora as it holds tremendous knowledge as exploited by the Cape Khoi-San. “The race is on to try and capture as much of the ancient wisdom before it is lost forever,” he says.

Van Wyk’s mission is to capture this knowledge in a series of major academic books that can preserve that knowledge for future generations. He has already produced a number of volumes, but is planning future publications focusing on the Cape herbal medicine.

He says such publications hold greater value than producing a database because it enables the inclusion of interpretation and analysis of the chemistry of the plants in addition to their uses. 

Through the Chair he is able to pass on this preservation responsibility to a new generation of young scientists who can continue his work. Since he was awarded the Chair in mid-2013, Van Wyk has enrolled four doctoral and two master’s students who are currently involved in research and archiving projects. 

He says it is not easy to find the right type of student interested in this line of work. He says this new generation of scientists is important to continue this line of work, especially given the rate at which traditional knowledge is being overtaken by urbanisation and abandonment of indigenous knowledge.

Part of his work with these students is to pass on methodologies for gathering this indigenous knowledge more quickly and efficiently. This is important to contribute to the better understanding of how particular plants are applied by communities in different regions, which helps develop a clearer pattern of their usage.

This article has been paid for by the National Research Foundation and its contents signed off by the Department of Science and Technology and the NRF.