Lack of funding halts African medicines from treating life-threatening diseases

Universities, science councils and the government have been funding research into African traditional medicine, but it's the costly clinical trial stage that sets back the process

25 September 2023 - 09:34
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Researchers of African traditional medicines are struggling to secure funding to rollout clinical trials on their research findings on indigenous medicine.
Researchers of African traditional medicines are struggling to secure funding to rollout clinical trials on their research findings on indigenous medicine.
Image: Alaister Russell/Sunday Times

The lack of funding for clinical trials of African traditional medicine prevents researchers from administering possibly life-saving medicines to patients with serious diseases.

The use of African traditional medicine to cure and treat ailments has been researched for more than 20 years, but it often gets stuck before clinical trials because of a lack of funding.

Prof David Katerere of Tshwane University of Technology's department of pharmaceutical science conducted research on sutherlandia (cancer bush) and its use to treat throat cancer. Other work involved a family of plants called the combretaceae or combretum, also for cancer treatment.

“We found, in the animal model we used, it worked and reduced the size of the cancer in the throat. It was shrinking it. The problem is because of funding issues we can’t go to the next level of research,” he said.

Developing a drug is a three-level process, with the first step in the labs in test tubes and reporting the findings, which Katerere said South Africans are good at.

The next level is the animal model, where the drug is tested on animals, normally rats and mice, by inducing the disease in the rodent and then treating it. This helps researchers monitor the toxicity issues, safety and efficacy.

“This is expensive yet affordable. Once you know the drug is safe in animals and showing effects, the next level is clinical trials, which is when you test on human beings.”

This could cost more than R10m because of expenses such as insurance in case those involved suffer injury, ensuring the product testing is under good practices and needing medical doctors in attendance.

“This makes it expensive. You are looking at upward of R10m to R20m for a proper clinical trial, and that is why our work never really goes past the animal studies because this is university-funded. If you look at a typical pharmaceutical product, they are funded by big pharmaceutical companies,” he said.

Africa Health Research Institute and University of KwaZulu-Natal researcher Prof Nceba Gqaleni said they have completed studies on traditional medicines for curing HIV but are waiting for clinical trials to be approved.

The trial aims to prove whether herbs researched and tested in laboratories on various strains of HIV can destroy the virus while it hides in tissue when the viral load is low because of ARVs.

“I don’t know when it will be approved. We are waiting for funding. We are already partially funded by the South African Medical Research Council and the rest of the funding comes from the Technological Innovation Agency. The product has been developed by a herbalist, Dr Nkabinde, and we have been working on this for eight years. A lot of the work has been done in laboratories to confirm its activities. When it comes to funding, we don’t have big budgets. If you want it to work out you need a big budget,” said Gqaleni.

University of Free State’s Prof Motlalepula Matsabisa, who has been vocal about research equity, said little is produced from the research invested as the money is sometimes reallocated.

“We have seen so much research and a lot has been invested and they have produced absolutely nothing. We don’t have an HIV vaccine that is fully approved due to a study. Some money gets redirected and therefore there is no output. In traditional medicines, these products have been used and we know how they are used and we just need the science behind it and an equivalent amount of funding.”

Matsabisa has been fortunate to reach the clinical trials stage for a drug that can treat long-Covid-19 and TB. But this did not come easy as they went on a difficult fundraising initiative.

“Some don’t want to put in money and say it’s too risky, but some jump in once we tell them we have done the clinical trials and it is safe. But it is our government — we can’t have external funders. It is our government that needs to stand up,” he said.

The department of science and innovation has been involved in African traditional medicine by establishing the African Natural Medicines Platform. This is made up of universities, science councils and African medicines practitioners, spokesperson Thabang Setlhare said.

They have contributed to funding research on African medicines and, depending on the projects and funding available, this may range between R1m to R20m a year. For example, infrastructure support was costly, he said.

But as for clinical trials, Setlhare said the department only funds its own trials.

“Our goal is that the safe, quality and efficacious African natural medicines be registered and manufactured for clinical application in healthcare and be commercialised — and those industries will be co-owned by healers themselves,” Setlhare said.

Matsabisa said he is glad the department has started to act.

“They are listening and beginning to put money into this. We need to go back to the department of health and say the products we are researching and developing should find a home in our hospitals and clinics.”


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