25 October 2005
The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded $4.4-million (R30-million) over four years for a South African research centre to study indigenous local plants already being used by traditional healers to fight HIV-induced ailments – and to tap those healers’ extensive knowledge of medicinal plants.
The grant has been awarded to the International Centre for Indigenous Phytotherapy Studies (Ticips), a collaborative research effort between the University of the Western Cape and the US University of Missouri-Columbia.
“The wealth of traditional knowledge regarding South African medicinal plants that rests with South African traditional healers is a valuable resource that may aid with the development of therapies,” the NIH said in awarding the grant.
“Ticips recognises the value of this indigenous knowledge, the pressing need to ensure that it is preserved, and the importance of recognising the contribution of indigenous knowledge and equitably sharing benefits derived from its use.”
A hotspot of botanical diversity
With more than 20 000 indigenous plant species, South Africa is described by the University of Missouri as a “hotspot of botanical diversity”.
More than 3 000 of these plants are used by traditional healers for treating ailments ranging from the common cold to serious diseases such as Aids. The Ticips research aims to assess the safety and effectiveness of these treatments.
“Ticips presents the very first opportunity for medical doctors, scientists and traditional healers to internationally cooperate as equal partners in exploring indigenous African phytotherapies for Aids, secondary infection and immune modulation,” said Quinton Johnson, director of the South African Herbal Science and Medicine Institute and a Ticips co-director.
“We would like to insert some scientific rigour into the equation,” he said. “Furthermore, Ticips creates a unique bridge between Western and African medicine systems, with the aim of bringing hope, health and healing to all.”
Principal instigator of the grant and the other Ticips co-director is Bill Folk of the University of Missouri. “American and South African citizens have strong interests in complementary and alternative medicine practices,” he said, “but little is known of their safety and effectiveness.”
There are more than 200 000 traditional healers in South Africa, providing indigenous healthcare to some 27-million people. Four out of five South Africans use traditional medicines, according to the Department of Health.
The research will be conducted in collaboration with these healers, by teams from the University of the Western Cape, University of Cape Town, University of Kwazulu-Natal, University of Missouri, Missouri Botanical Garden, University of Texas and Georgetown University.
Sutherlandia and wormwood
The centre’s first projects will examine two plants used widely in South Africa. One will investigate whether sutherlandia, or Lessertia frutescens, prevents weight loss in the early stages of the disease. The plant has traditionally been used as a tonic for a wide range of health problems.
A previous pilot study by Ticips researchers examined the safety of administering sutherlandia to healthy adults – the first study of its kind, said Folk.
“We want to be very clear . that we are not looking at substituting other medicines (such as antiretroviral Aids drugs) with any of these plant remedies,” Johnson told Business Day.
Another project will focus on African wormwood (Artemisia afra), widely used by traditional healers for the treatment of many conditions associated with HIV/Aids. There is also evidence that it may be useful in treating tuberculosis, which will be explored by Ticips researchers. Another project will examine the plant’s potential for preventing or treating cervical cancer.
“A real strength of Ticips comes from the contributions of colleagues outside of the life sciences,” Folk said.
“Communication is a strong component in order to let the public know what we find. Working with the Missouri School of Journalism and colleagues at the University of the Western Cape will ensure that our findings about the safety of these plants are distributed among the public, not only in South Africa, but throughout the world.
“Nature has thousands of secrets that we have yet to discover. This is a big first step in uncovering some of those secrets and seeing how we can better understand these alternative medicines.”