Johannesburg — When Justin Omolo was growing up in Tanzania, he preferred Western medical clinics to African traditional healers. “I was the only one in my family who didn’t believe in all the traditional cures,” he said. “I guess I wanted proof.”
Now this young African organic chemist is looking for that proof as he conducts research for his PhD on plants used by Tanzanian traditional healers to treat HIV.
Omolo’s research is supported by the Science Initiative Group (SIG), which aims to foster science in developing countries. Based at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, SIG is governed by a board that includes scientists from developing countries, leading U.S. scientists and an entrepreneur, and is supported by the Carnegie Corporation and the Mellon and Packard foundations. SIG’s chief focus is an initiative supporting PhD and MSc-level students in sub-Saharan Africa called the Regional Initiative in Science and Education (RISE).
It is through RISE that Omolo has been able to study potential drugs to combat HIV/Aids. His PhD research was inspired by reports from Tanzania’s northeastern Tanga region that HIV-positive people who consulted traditional healers responded well to treatment with indigenous plants.
"People said that you drink just one cup of this medicine (made from local plants) and your condition improved," Omolo said. "Doctors at the local hospitals heard about it, too. They said that these people were living as much as 10 years longer than expected.”
The Tanzanian government sent researchers to probe these reports and test the plants for toxicity. Once they proved non-toxic, the Tanga Aids Working Group (TAWG) was founded to investigate the effect of these indigenous plants on HIV. Medical doctors and scientists from the National Institute of Medical Research and the Institute of Traditional Medicine at the University of Muhimbili have joined forces with Dutch and Indian research organizations.
As part of this international effort, Omolo has travelled from the University of Dar es Salaam to South Africa, where he is conducting further research on these plants for his PhD in organic chemistry. The RISE program links graduate students such as Omolo into various networks relating to their specific fields of science.
Omolo is part of the RISE network known as SABINA, Southern African Biochemistry and Informatics for Natural Products, which aims to harness the power of southern Africa’s biodiversity to increase capacity in natural products research. This kind of innovative networking in chemistry and biochemistry among universities in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) aims to contribute to development goals around food security, public health and value-added exports.
Two major South African universities, Witwatersrand and Pretoria, and South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) are SABINA partner institutions. Omolo is conducting his PhD research at Johannesburg’s “Wits” University, with support from CSIR. These institutions act as a back-stop to his home university in Tanzania, which has far less resources and expertise.
“In order to do my research, I prepare the plants the way the traditional healers do, boiling the stems, bark, leaves and tubers,” Omolo said enthusiastically. His studies have found chemical compounds in the plants that act against HIV, which targets the T4 cells that are vital to the body’s immune system. The hope is that a drug made from these plants can stop HIV from binding with the T4 cells, thus allowing them to do their job of fighting infections.
Why synthesise a drug in a lab when the plants in their natural environment have been shown to do the job of fighting HIV? Omolo’s supervisor, University of the Witwatersrand chemistry professor Charles de Konig, said that if the plants were to be harvested in Tanzania, it could require a ton of plant material to produce a few milligrams of the active ingredient.
On the other hand, the laboratory can replicate the required climate and soil conditions and make synthetic versions of the plants far more efficiently. Another issue is that SABINA doesn’t endorse the pillaging of a natural healer’s source, which is something that pharmaceutical companies had been accused of doing.
The names of these plants are not being publicly revealed because Omolo’s efforts to identify and synthesise the active anti-HIV compounds could eventually lead to the patenting of an anti-HIV drug. But that’s all in the future - his immediate goal is to finish writing up his research findings by the end of this year, so that he can return to teach at his university in Tanzania as Dr. Justin Omolo.