Traditional knowledge to enhance modern medicine

Posted on May 11, 2016

Prof Namrita Lall of the Department of Plant Science in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Pretoria (UP), is bringing science and traditional knowledge together and making it accessible to the modern market by tapping into South Africa's diverse pool of plant life and making it available for medicinal and cosmeceutical use. Prof Lall is one of only a few UP researchers to have a product available on the commercial market.

An estimated 20 000 plant species are used medicinally today and a number of the ingredients used in modern medicine to treat serious diseases originate from plant-based traditional medicine. Despite the fact that it constitutes only 2% of the world's land surface, South Africa is one of only 17 countries worldwide that is considered mega-diverse in terms of its plant life, with more than 25 000 different indigenous plant species, or about 10% of all the known plant species on Earth. South Africa is therefore a prime location for Prof Lall's work.

Prof Lall has been studying medicinal plants for more than 20 years, using science to prove their efficacy, and has thereby validated traditional knowledge. Plant-based medicine is in huge demand in Europe, which has encouraged Prof Lall to use her knowledge and research findings to satisfy the demand. Though the process of testing plants for beneficial properties is often delayed by a lack of resources and time, Prof Lall has successfully completed the process for a number of plants that are now ready for commercialisation.

The medicinal plant Ceratonia siliqua, commonly known as the carob tree or St John's bread, is now being used by Carina Franck in one of South Africa's top organic skin-care ranges, Kalahari. Prof Lall has discovered a number of other plants that can be used for the effective treatment of skin conditions, ranging from pigmentation abnormalities and wrinkles to acne, and is waiting for their permits to be finalised before they, too, can be commercialised. Other products developed by Prof Lall include an effective mouthwash for periodontal diseases, as well as chemo-preventative skincare, hepato-protective and immune-modulatory products.

Prof Lall explains that plants are selected in two ways, namely through ethno-botanical selection or through phytochemistry. The ethno-botanical approach is where plants used by indigenous communities for traditional purposes – for instance, for food and medicine – are tested to see if they have medicinal value. ‘The phytochemistry approach is where we use existing knowledge about the chemical substances found in specific plants. If we know a plant is rich in a specific chemical compound that could be of medicinal or cosmeceutical use, we isolate that compound and run trials to determine its usability,' she says.

Through her work, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) has identified a flagship project focussed on using traditional knowledge on plants for pharmaceutical and cosmetic uses. Prof Lall says this is one of the most exciting parts of her work. Not only are students getting degrees, but the research also benefits humankind. ‘I am very interested in community work. For instance, my postgraduate students and I are involved in a project in Mamelodi where we are helping farmers to cultivate plants that can be used for medicinal purposes. In fact, the communities where we work are always involved and will no doubt benefit from the results once some of these projects become economically viable,' she explains.

Working so intimately with traditional knowledge does require delicacy and patience. The process of securing intellectual property rights and other legalities are the main factors that delay commercialisation of a product and getting it onto the market. While Prof Lall has already patented a number of plants, sourcing the community from which the knowledge originated in order for them to benefit can be challenging.  After 11 years of trying to get products onto the market, however, Prof Lall is optimistic that now that the process is in place, progress will be faster. She has already received the permits for plants that were selected from UP's own gardens and the resulting products can be used to treat skin pigmentation abnormalities and for chemo-preventative skin-care. Encouragingly, Prof Lall is the first researcher at UP to receive a bioprospecting permit for two types of plant.

It is very exciting to think about the potential of Prof Lall's work. Her outstanding research findings will be beneficial on a number of levels, from the growing link between academia and industry, to enriching the lives of rural communities and improving the well-being of the people who use these products.

In April 2016, the University celebrated Prof Lall's achievements by holding an exhibition to showcase some of the products she helped to develop.

Prof Lall's accolades include the following:

  • She is ranked in the top 1% of the global Essential Science Indicators list of influential academics who write about pharmacology and toxicology.
  • In 2014, she received the Order of Mapungubwe – South Africa's highest honour – from President Jacob Zuma, in recognition of her research.
  • She was a finalist in the 2014 National Science and Technology Forum Award in the category that recognises outstanding contributions made by researchers over the past 10 years.
  • She was a winner of the 2002 UNESCO-L'Oreal Award for Women in Science.


- Author Louise de Bruin

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