Traditional innovation

Professor Keolebogile Shirley Motaung, Assistant Dean of the Faculty of Science at the Tshwane University of Technology

Professor Keolebogile Shirley Motaung, Assistant Dean of the Faculty of Science at the Tshwane University of Technology

South Africa has long been recognised as a country rich in tradition and biodiversity. The plants that proliferate across its provinces and plateaus are often used by traditional healers to treat injuries and help people who have no access to modern medical care. Not all of them work, but some are almost miraculous in their ability to heal patients and ease their symptoms – like those discovered by Tshwane University of Technology’s Professor Keolebogile Shirley Motaung.

“I met up with a traditional healer in Limpopo in 2015. She used a confidential blend of herbs and plant species to help people who complained about pain in their joints and knees,” says Motaung. “She also told me of a man who had broken his hand but had been told by the local hospital to come back after a month to be treated. So he went to the healer.” When he went back to the hospital, x-rays showed his hand had healed. It seemed that the unique combination of herbs had knitted bone and eased swelling. For Motaung, it was an opportunity to investigate the plants’ properties under rigorous scientific conditions.

“I was sure that these plants had anti-inflammatory properties, and further testing confirmed it.” she said. “I then created an ointment, La-Africa Soother, using these plants. It is an alternative, natural anti-inflammatory ointment.” The repair of bone and cartilage is a challenging clinical problem. Autografts and allografts are the gold standard for the treatment of bone and cartilage, requiring tissue to be harvested from an alternative site within the patient or from donor tissue. Plant-based morphogenetic factor (PBMF) implants offer orthopaedic patients and patients suffering from osteoarthritis an alternative, less invasive standard.

“South Africa is rich in native flora, which are currently used by traditional healers. These medicinal plants are an integral part of African culture,” says Motaung. “Currently, the role of medicinal plants in tissue engineering constructs remains unexplored and it is so important that we study this. This will allow us to identify even further alternative treatment opportunities for fracture healing, bone repair, cartilage regeneration and osteoarthritis.”

Thanks to her work with these plants and her inventive solutions, Motaung has received numerous awards, including being recognised as The Most Innovative Woman of the Year in Gauteng at the Women of Excellence Awards ceremony. She also won the Gauteng Accelerator Programme Bio competition in 2015, which came with a 12-month tenure on the BioPark Business Incubator programme. In addition, the project’s research and development was funded by the National Research Foundation Thuthuka grant. “Through the development of these products and solutions, we are hoping to make significant changes in patient care for those suffering from conditions such as osteoarthritis,” says Motaung. “Our goal is to reduce waiting periods for people waiting for knee replacements, to remove the need to harvest tissue from alternative sites, and to ensure that these solutions are affordable. These products differ from existing market solutions as they can be used as scaffolds, are natural and unique, and can be used as differentiation growth factors for stem cells.”