Researchers at the University of Pretoria have investigated Aloe marlothii and found that natural active ingredients in the roots of this aloe species have anti-plasmodial properties.
Sephora Mianda Mutombo and Professor Vinesh Maharaj
February 9, 2023
Sephora Mianda completed her undergraduate studies in Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). In 2017, she embarked on a master’s degree in Chemistry at the University of Pretoria (UP), and completed it two years later under the supervision of Professor Vinesh Maharaj. Mianda says she chose to register at UP because she regards it as one of the best universities in Africa and because its laboratories are well equipped for conducting research.
Mianda works with the Department of Biochemistry, Genetics and Microbiology and UP’s Institute for Sustainable Malaria Control, which is under the leadership of Prof Lyn-Marié Birkholtz. She is also part of the Biodiscovery Research Team at UP.
“We are investigating different South African medicinal plants to identify compounds that have active components [that can work] against several diseases,” she explains. “Some of the researchers are targeting cancer; others are looking at SARS-CoV-2, inflammation, HIV and more. I am targeting malaria.”
Mianda’s field of research contributes to the betterment of the world because many drugs used today are derived from natural products, which play a considerable role in the discovery and development of new pharmaceuticals.
“We need to carry on investigating natural products to find a cure for diseases that the world is facing,” she says.
A recent highlight for Mianda has been her research into plants species that has seen her isolating several compounds that have been tested for their anti-plasmodial activities; some have shown promising results.
Mianda says she loved chemistry at high school, and when she met Prof Sylvie Bambi, who is also from the DRC and who was a PhD student in Belgium at the time, she became interested in drug discovery research.
“That’s why I studied Pharmaceutical Sciences for my undergraduate degree and chose early-drug discovery as the subject of my master’s and PhD.”
Her interest in natural products was fostered during her internship with Prof Gerhard Bringmann, a leading scientist in the field of natural products chemistry, at the University of Würzburg in Germany.
“I was doing syntheses of natural compounds at the time, but was fascinated by other group members presenting new compounds that they had isolated from plants and demonstrating how they had used nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to determine the structures,” she recalls.
As for academic role models, Mianda says, “I have been inspired by my supervisors, Prof Vinesh Maharaj and Prof Gerhard Bringmann. But being a woman, I tend to look up to other women in academia and one of them is UP’s Prof Namrita Lall.” Prof Lall, of the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, holds the National Research Foundation/Department of Science and Technology Chair in Indigenous Knowledge Systems.
Mianda hopes to find compounds that will take anti-malarial drug discovery and development further. The Biodiscovery Research Team’s research because they are looking for solutions to problems faced by humanity.
“As long as there are diseases in the world, we will need ways to treat them, and drugs are one of those ways,” she says. “The development of drugs starts with the identification of active compounds; these may be natural or synthetic, but we need to identify them.”
Her advice to school learners or undergraduates who are interested in her field is to do something that they love while contributing to finding solutions to global problems, as there is reward in that.
In her free time, Mianda loves the outdoors and reading, especially spiritual books and mysteries and thrillers.
Prof Vinesh Maharaj, a natural product chemist trained in discovering new pharmaceutical ingredients based on biodiversity samples, is the Deputy Dean: Research and Postgraduate Education in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences (NAS).
Before this appointment, he was the Head of the Department of Chemistry from September 2016.
Prof Maharaj has published widely in peer-reviewed journals and has supervised to completion of several master's and doctoral students. He was recently awarded funding of over R35 million by the Department of Science and Innovation for the creation of a Biodiscovery Centre at the University. This includes establishing a high-end robotic system to create a repository of natural products, including compounds ready for high throughput biological screening programmes of pharmaceutical interest. Recently he joined a core team set up by DSI for the discovery of natural products for the treatment of COVID-19 (SARS-Cov-2).
University of Pretoria researchers find that the common ancestor of the approximately 100 species of Protea found in South Africa and Australia’s related macadamia nut trees (such as Macadamia integrifolia) and waratah (Telopea speciosissima) dates back to when dinosaurs went extinct.
University of Pretoria (UP) researchers are at the forefront of a very special first for South African plant sciences. They have unravelled the precise genetic make-up of the country’s national flower, the king protea (Protea cynaroides). It is the first plant that’s unique to South Africa – and the species-rich fynbos biome in particular – to have its entire genome sequenced in-depth.
With climate change said to be affecting the intensity of rainfall, experts at the University of Pretoria (UP) have investigated if there are observable changes in the probability of significant to extreme daily rainfall across South Africa.
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