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Flora explorers to cross herbal hurdles

29 January 2015 - 02:13 By Dominic Skelton

South Africa's indigenous plants are going under the microscope.

On April 1, the Herbal Drugs Research Unit at Tshwane University of Technology will begin looking into the healing properties of the country's indigenous plants.

Seventy percent of the country's population relies on traditional healing as their primary method of health care from 200000 traditional healers.

Annually, 20000 tons of these plant materials are traded, but little is known of their chemical make-up.

The unit, given a R1-million funding injection from the Medical Research Council, will investigate these herbal drugs and build a database of chemical information intended to inform commercialisation of herbal drugs.

Professor Alvaro Viljoen, the unit's director, said most of South Africa's traditional healing plants are untested and unregulated.

"The Medicines Control Council has recommended that all herbal medicine, including traditional medicines, that are packaged and sold as dosage forms should be subjected to the regulated requirements that speak to efficacy, safety and quality," said Viljoen.

"We are not trying to find the cure to Aids or TB. This is to provide the basic platform of research to develop the biodiversity of South Africa."

The approach of the research unit is to go into the field, collect plants known to have medicinal qualities, visit “muthi markets” and profile the samples chemically to build a comparative database for researchers. He said that currently such a database does not exist.

“Despite the fact that we've got this huge biodiversity, we have performed dismally in terms of generating consumer products,” said Viljoen. According to him, far less biodiverse areas of the world have produced more products from their flora than SA.

“South Africa is in a sweet spot to do this kind of research. We have the plants, we have the indigenous knowledge systems that relate to traditional medicines.”

Researchers at TUT recently scanned 20 products of Hypoxis, or African Potato, off the shelves of South African shops. Fourteen of them did not contain any traces of the plant.

The centre will conduct investigations on herbal medicines such as African Wormwood (Artemisia Asteracae), known for clearing the respiratory tract, Sceletium tortuosum that reduces anxiety and Umckaloabo (Bellagonium Cedoides), which helps alleviate symptoms of bronchitis.