Natural product library at UP’s Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences a unique resource in search for new medicines

Posted on July 28, 2021

The Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences (NAS) at the University of Pretoria is at the forefront of biodiscovery research, allocating R26m in funding from the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) to create a library of natural products.

According to Professor Vinesh Maharaj, Deputy Dean: Research and Postgraduate Education and leader of this project, the DSI funding will be used to create a library of natural products in Africa and significant progress has been made with equipment having been installed.

“Due to its geographical position, South Africa is reported to be the third most diverse country globally. Approximately 10% of the world’s known species and 15% of known coastal and marine species are found in South Africa. This presents a unique resource for discovering novel natural ingredients for the pharmaceutical, food and cosmetic industries. However, due to the diversity of the genetic resources, a systematic study of this can only be done by creating natural product libraries that are ready for high throughput screening campaigns, which are now at the forefront of the pharmaceutical industry in the search for new medicines.”

The DSI is funding creating a unique repository of natural products as part of the NAS Biodiscovery research housed in the Department of Chemistry.

According to Prof Maharaj, “A collection of samples comprising thousands of plant extracts and 10 000 dry plants are being transferred from the CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research) to the University. These plant extracts and dry plants will be the basis for the library. It will be converted into purified samples consisting of semi-purified fractions and natural compounds stored in microtiter plates ready for high-throughput (HTS) purposes. The infrastructure is being put into place, which consists of high-end hyphenated analytical equipment such as HPLC MS, HPLC-MS-NMR, and existing UPLC QTOF MS systems for the chemical characterisation of the library. Robotic liquid handlers and robotic freezers will be used for the front-end management of the samples together with a database for future artificial intelligence purposes,” he explained.

Collaborations have already been established with many institutes and centres globally. These include Wistar Institute in the United States (COVID-19 anti-viral screening); University of Basel, Switzerland (HIV and COVID-19 screening); Wellcome Institute for Infectious Diseases, University of Dundee (treatment of leishmaniasis and human African trypanosomiasis); National Cancer Institute, US, and JSS University in India (anti-cancer screening); and Zhejiang University, China (inflammatory diseases).

- Author NAS

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