UP PhD student receives prestigious award for best research in basic pharmacology

Posted on August 10, 2014

Mr Werner Cordier, who is currently doing a PhD under the supervision of Prof Vanessa Steenkamp from the Department of Pharmacology at UP, was awarded the prestigious IPASA (Innovative Pharmaceutical Association of South Africa) award for best research in basic pharmacology for his research titled ‘An in vitro mechanistic evaluation of the hepatotoxic properties of Solanum aculeastrum’.

Africa has an immensely rich diversity of plant species, most of which have been incorporated into our own natural pharmacopeia. These plants are used as herbal remedies for the treatment and alleviation of numerous diseases, which ultimately aim to help improve our quality of life. In South Africa, traditional healers outnumber ’modern’ doctors ten-to-one, a fact that reinforces the importance of the traditional remedy market. As is the case with the majority of all traditional remedies, scientific evidence is often highly controversial or lacking with regard to their efficacy and safety. Sufficient toxicological information is also often not available, which means that there is no real knowledge of whether or not these remedies can elicit adverse effects.  

Mr Cordier’s research examines the properties of various herbal remedies, including Solanum aculeastrum. This is a poisonous nightshade species from Africa that is commonly known as soda-apple nightshade or bitter apple, which may cause chemically-driven liver damage or hepatotoxicity. Hepatotoxicity arising from herbal remedies often appears late, and the prognosis for the patient can then be quite poor. It is, therefore, imperative that evaluation of herbal remedies be done with regard to their ability to negatively influence the liver. Research done to date has identified several plants that have a high potential for hepatotoxic responses, which appear to work through different pathways, including, mitochondrial toxicity – a condition in which the mitochondria of a body's cells become damaged or decline significantly in number; and the reduced clearance of fatty acids leading to hepatosteatosis – a condition known informally as fatty liver.

Separate from this is the practice of polypharmacy, which entails the use of several different medications, traditional or allopathic, concomitantly. While drug-drug interactions are well described in existing literature and the importance thereof has been intensely reviewed over the years, drug-herb interactions are not that detailed. Several widely used and popular preparations have been evaluated and potential for risk has been identified. African herbal remedies, however, have not been discussed as such. In light of this, Mr Cordier’s research aims to make clear whether or not these preparations have a risk of inducing in vitro drug interactions. Preliminary data so far suggests that alterations in absorption may occur, though at concentrations that may be above that physiologically relevant. This is not to say that no risk is evident, as the possibility of bioaccumulation is ever-present. Further research will evaluate whether or not nevirapine (an antiretroviral drug used in the treatment of HIV and AIDS) may be affected in vitro, as well as the possibility of herbal remedies resulting in alterations of hepatic microsomal enzyme activity, which forms one of the most important metabolism spectrums for pharmaceutical drugs.

Although much progress has been made in developing new medicines in the last few decades, innovation remains an essential component of the global healthcare industry. Unmet medical needs, the emergence of new infectious diseases along with the ’super bugs’ that are produced by increasing resistance to existing treatments, bring new challenges every day. 

- Author Ansa Heyl

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