2nd November 2016
A team of scientists at Royal Botanical Gardens Kew has embarked on the mammoth task of creating a single database of the world’s medicinal plant species.
Our knowledge of beneficial botany is dispersed across many sources, and is complicated with most species having a variety of different names.
The team at Kew says its work will help pharmacists and regulators, as well as relevant scientific research.
To date, the resource covers an estimated 18,000 different species.
“From those 18,000 species of plant, we have something like 90,000 different names that are used within the health community and by regulators,” explained Bob Allkin from Kew’s Medicinal Plant Name Services project (MPNS).
“They use many different names for the same plant; some of the names are ambiguous, and we have 230,000 scientific names for those plants.”
What’s in a name?
He described why there was a need to compile a single reference for the increasingly globalised plant-based medicinal market.
“Pharmacists have traditionally referred to products in great detail, about how it should be prepared. They would also suggest what plant, and what bit of the plant, it can be derived from, such as just the root or just the leaves,” Dr Allkin told BBC News.
“However, from a botanical point of view, they have been rather loose about how they referred to the plants; they would have used common names, or they would have used pharmaceutical names.
“In both cases, those names are used differently in different places. Obviously, language is an issue but even within the English-speaking world, one common name can be used in different ways to mean different plants. This leads to ambiguity.”
When you are dealing with medicine, ambiguity can result in unacceptable consequences.
In a high profile incident, more than 100 people in Belgium suffered kidney failure as a result of taking weight-loss pills. Unfortunately, a number of the casualties lost their lives as a result of taking the pills.
“The reason for this was because one substance was substituted for another because they had a similar name. This shows that there are very serious consequences to not being precise about what plants are being used,” Dr Allkin warned.
“We are compiling all of the names of the plants as used in herbal medicinal products, as used in [various editions of] pharmacopeia and medical literature. They use a mix of common names, in different languages, they also use what are known as pharmaceutical names – which in many cases are also written in Latin – and they also use scientific names. They use a whole mix of things.”
There are numerous pharmacopeia (books containing technical instructions to identify compound medicines) – such as the Chinese, Japanese, and European editions – as well as databases used by regulators, such as the US Food and Drug Administration.
Dr Allkin observed: “We then map those names as used by the regulators and health profession to Kew Garden’s comprehensive and authoritative global plant taxonomies.”
He said that in order for regulators to be able to accurately identify what plants are being used, it is necessary to use scientific names.
“That is the only way because those scientific names are referred to a physical reference in a herbarium store, such as the one at Kew, and those physical specimens tie down what that [scientific] name refers to, as well as its chemical components and DNA etc,” he explained.
“The problem for people who are not botanists is that there are various obstacles to using the scientific names properly. In the past, botanists have provided wonderful online resources that are useful to other botanists, but not necessarily intelligible to those working in the health sector.”
However, this presents a problem of its own. Dr Allkin acknowledge that one of the challenges of using scientific nomenclature is that there are many more names than there are plants.
It is estimated that there are between 360,000 and 400,000 species of flowering plants in the world, yet there are 1.6 million scientific names for plants known to science.
“Each plant often has multiple scientific names; this is particularly true of useful plants like medicinal plants because they have been well studies and well described, therefore end up having lot of different or alternative names,” Dr Allkin said.
“We know of one plant in the British pharmacopeia that has more than 500 scientific synonyms.
“One consequence of that is that it makes it very hard to find all the research that has been published about that plant, as research might have been published under any one of many names.”
Dr Allkin said that if someone searched for details of previous research of a plant using just one of its names then you – on average – would find about 10% to 15% of the previous reach, meaning you would not find up to 85% of previous scientific work on the plant.
Another problem is that names keep changing – there are 10,000 changes to scientific nomenclature each year.
“This is because there are new plants being found, there are about 2,000 of those, and then there are about 4,000 cases each year when a plant is moved from one genus into another genus,” he added.
“This is done because the molecular or chemical data that becomes available makes us realise that that particular species is much more closely related in another genus rather than the one it current belongs to.
“Our project is about making Kew’s botanical expertise accessible to all.”
Story by:BBC Newsfor
17th October 2016
For the past 18 years, the L’Ore’al-UNESCO for Women in Science (http://www.ForWomenInScience.com) programme has encouraged, promoted and honoured female scientists all over the world. More than 2,500 researchers from 112 countries have been distinguished for their extraordinary discoveries and supported at key moments in their careers.
Dr Stephanie Fanucchi, senior researcher at the Biomedical Translational Research Initiative (BTRI) – an initiative of the CSIR and the University of Cape Town, funded by the Department of Science and Technology was a recipient of the L’Ore’al-UNESCO Sub-Saharan Africa 2016 postdoctoral fellowship of 10 000 euros.
Her research uses cutting edge microscopes and synthetic biology tools to understand how immune genes are regulated. The title of her project is deciphering the roles of non-coding RNAs in immune gene regulation, which she will conduct in Prof. Musa Mhlanga’s laboratory, BTRI technical manager.
“Aberrant gene regulation underpins a multitude of disease states, including autoimmune disease and cancer. Yet, despite this, our understanding of the intricacies of gene regulation remains poorly understood'” says Fanucchi. “Therefore, a detailed understanding of immune gene regulation will have far-reaching implications with respect to our understanding and treatment of cancer, chronic diseases such as diabetes, allergy responses and a host of other diseases and important cellular processes.”
The prestigious ceremony where fellows were presented with the award took place on 28 September at The Venue Greenpark, Johannesburg.
Story by Tendani Tsedu for CSIR Media relations, October 2016
30th September 2016
In early September, the ACGT teamed up with WITS and UP’s 2016 iGem team to sponsor and host a 2-day informative workshop and symposium on Synthetic Biology. Synthetic biology is a multidisciplinary field of science that involves the design and construction of novel artificial biomolecular components, pathways or networks in organisms or the redesign of existing natural biological systems. Although still in its infancy, Synthetic biology is rapidly expanding and has shown huge potential and benefit in a diverse number of applications, including the development of cheaper drugs, the treatment of antibiotic resistant infections, genetic disorders, therapies to treat diseases such as cancer, biofuel production.
The 2-day event was well attended and included participants from the CSIR, ARC, UP, WITS and the Department of Environmental Affairs. The workshop was interactive and delegates had the opportunity to hear about and discuss some of activities and approaches in the field that are currently being explored in South America, UK and South Africa. On the first day, a workshop was facilitated by Dr. Fernán Federici, assistant professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile and a research fellow at the University of Cambridge. Dr. Federici introduced open source technologies for science, education and bioengineering as well as started open discussions about how to implement new collaborative frameworks in Africa and Latin America. Dr. Geoffrey Baldwin, a Reader in Biochemistry in the Department of Life Sciences and Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation (CSynBI) at Imperial College London, also presented on his work on the BASIC method for standard DNA assembly approaches.
On the second day, delegates were treated to a keynote address by Dr. Baldwin titled: “Engineering Biology in the Genomic Age: the Synthetic Biology Revolution” as well a presentation by the 2016 UP iGEM team on their WattsAptamer project, where they described the design of “Synthetic laccases and DNA aptamers for thylakoid tethering in photo-electrochemical cells”.
These two events provided an informative platform for an exchange of ideas and interdisciplinary discussions as well as the potential for new collaborations. The ACGT is committed to supporting and hosting events that benefit Biotechnology and the Bioscience Community, particularly our partners, so for more information on upcoming workshops, symposia and bioinformatics training events, visit the events page on the ACGT website (www.acgt.co.za), like us on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/ACGT.biotec) or contact Farhahna Allie at az.ca1550337877.ju@e1550337877illaf1550337877
* Thank you to Whitehead Scientific for sponsorship towards these events
1st June 2016
Amongst the most productive scientists of his generation, and possibly ever in the field of forest health. He is an extraordinary scholar, but also an extraordinary leader, mentor, and friend to many scientists around the world.’ This was one of the citations about Prof Mike Wingfield when the announcement was made that he had been awarded the Distinguished Leadership Award for International Scientists for 2016, by his alma mater, the University of Minnesota.
Prof Wingfield is Professor and Founding Director of the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI) at the University of Pretoria and also the current President of the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO), a worldwide network of more than 15 000 forest scientists with its headquarters based in Austria. He is also an A1-rated National Research Foundation (NRF) researcher.
This leadership award is bestowed on individuals who distinguished themselves in their post-university work as leaders in their professional careers. Prof Wingfield did the research for his PhD at the University of Minnesota and was awarded the degree in 1983.
His work on the topic of tree health has been widely published in more than 600 research papers and five books. As an invited speaker he has made numerous highly acclaimed presentations globally.
Prof Wingfield was elected as a fellow of several scientific societies, including the Royal Society of South Africa, the Academy of Science for South Africa (ASSAf), and the Southern African Society for Plant Pathology and the American Phytopathological Society. He is one of the few honorary members of the Mycological Society of America.
The prestigious African Union (AU) Kwame Nkrumah Scientific Award in the Life and Earth Sciences category was bestowed on Prof Wingfield in Addis Ababa in 2013, and other accolades that he has received include the Johanna Westerdijk Award, awarded by the Centraalbureau voor Schimmelcultures (CBS) (Fungal Biodiversity Centre, the Netherlands), and honorary DSc degrees from the University of British Columbia in 2012, and from the North Carolina State University in 2013.
More details about the reasons why he was selected for the award are provided on the website of the University of Minnesota.
Story by: Martie Meyer, University of Pretoria News.
26th May 2016
As Africa contends with increasing temperatures because of climate change, pulses such as lentils, beans, peas and chickpeas could hold the key to addressing widespread malnutrition and hunger on the Continent. This was according to food and nutrition experts, who attended a recent International Year of Pulses (IYP2016) conference which was held in Johannesburg. South Africa has joined the rest of the world in celebrating the International Year of Pulses (IYP2016).
The aim of the Johannesburg conference was to raise public awareness about the importance pulses and how they could be used to address hunger and food insecurity in the continent.
According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) over 6.3 million people in the drought stricken Southern Africa region could face food shortages. In South Africa food security has been significantly threatened by soaring food prices as a result of rising inflation and the drought itself.
Dr Palesa Sekhejane, Research Specialist at Human Sciences Research Council says that Africa suffers from most extreme forms of poverty and food insecurity despite being rich with natural resources and arable land. She said this was mainly due to lack of and implementation of indigenous knowledge.
Known to be traditional by many, pulses are inexpensive critical source of plant-based proteins and amino acids especially in poorer areas where meat and dairy are economically inaccessible. They are incredibly rich in nutritional value hence many health organisations around the world recommend eating them as part of a healthy diet to address obesity, to prevent and manage chronic diseases such as
diabetes, coronary conditions and cancer. The amount of protein found in pulses is double of that found in wheat and four times that of rice.
Pulses are described as the world’s most versatile super food because of their drought resistant nature, pulses such peas, bambara beans and lentils can be cultivated in arid climates that have limited and often erratic rainfall of 300-400 mm/year. To produce 0.5kg, pulses require 160 litres of water compared to 7000 litres for beef and 2800 litres for chicken. If properly stored, pulses remain edible for several years making them a smart option for households without refrigeration.
Health organisations around the world recommend eating pulses as part of a healthy diet to prevent and help manage obesity and chronic diseases such as diabetes, coronary conditions and cancer.
Not only are pulses good for human nutrition, they are also good for animals and the environment too. Pulses have nitrogen-fixing properties that can contribute to increased soil fertility and have a positive impact on the environment.
They promote the below –the-surface biodiversity, as they create a rich home for germs, bugs and bacteria of various kinds necessary for plant growth. Pulses, especially dry peas, can also be used as feedstuff. Complimenting animal feed with improved varieties of pulses has shown to significantly improve animal nutrition too, yielding better livestock, which in turn supports food security.
A study in West Africa showed that animals fed cowpea hay; along with rice feed meal, during dry season gain 95kg, compared to 62kg for animals that did not receive the cowpea fodder. The manure was also of improved quality and the study estimated that farmers who used cowpea fodder could benefit from an extra 50kg of meat a year and over 300kg of cereal grain from the improved soil quality.
A reduction in overall pulse consumption trend has been observed and this is attributed to failure of domestic production to keep with population growth in many countries. Increased production of pulses is what Africa needs to counteract the consequences of the current drought.
In the global context, IYP2016 will complement Sustainable Development Goals 2 (To end hunger, achieve food security and improve nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture) and 3 (Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages).
The United Nations (UN) focus year aligns with various other UN initiatives to address poverty, hunger and food insecurity around the world, like the second UN Decade for the Elimination of Poverty (2008-2017), and the UN High-Level Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis, established in April 2008 to promote a comprehensive and unified response to the challenge of achieving global food security.
Story by: The Department of Science and Technology, © 2011 – Current, Department: Science & Technology, Republic of South Africa. All rights reserved.
20th May 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.
Story by: Louise de Bruin, University of Pretoria News.
12th May 2016
Tuberculosis ranks alongside HIV/AIDS as a leading cause of death worldwide. According to the World Health Organisation, 1.5 million people died from TB in 2014. The challenges in tackling the disease include the facts that people are tested too late and that the turnaround for most tests is long. To remedy this a point-of-care rapid diagnostic test for TB has been developed by a multinational team of scientists led by researchers at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. One of its co-inventors, Professor Gerhard Walzl, spoke to The Conversation Africa’s health and medicine editor Candice Bailey.
How have TB tests been done up until now and what are the challenges?
There are three main tests that are currently in use.
A culture test – the most sensitive – requires people to produce a sputum sample that is sent to a centralised laboratory where a culture test is done. A positive result shows up after ten days. A confirmed negative result takes up to 42 days.
The problem with this test is that it is only available in centralised laboratories, which means patients must make several trips to a hospital or health facility to get their results. And it is very expensive.
Then there is the sputum microscopy test. This is widely used in Africa. It requires the sputum slides of each patient to be individually checked.
The test is inexpensive. But it is labour intensive, which means that only a limited number of smear tests can be assessed a day. In addition, it only has a 60% sensitivity rate.
On top of this, the test poses particular challenges for children and for people living with HIV.
In the case of young children, samples need to be taken from their stomachs as they cannot follow instructions to produce a good quality sputum sample. This requires the use of a nasal tube, which is not pleasant for the child or the health-care worker.
The test also isn’t effective for people living with HIV. This is because their sputum often has low levels of the bacteria, which can lead to a false negative test result.
There is also a molecular test that detects bacterial DNA in the sputum sample. This test only takes two hours to produce a result and although it speeds up the detection of TB, it is not widely available to people in rural areas as instruments are placed in a centralised manner.
To access the full article visit The Conversation website.
9th May 2016
In 2009, Bassirou Bonfoh, director of the Centre Suisse de Recherches Scientifique (CSRS) in Cote d’Ivoire joined forces with 10 other African institutions to collaborate on research into infections that pass between animals and humans, many of which are now sadly world famous including Ebola, HIV and Zika.
The collaboration enabled him to access data from as far afield as Tanzania and extend his remit to rift valley fever, an infection that has had several outbreaks since its first detection in 1931.
Crucially, in doing this he has avoided duplicating research. Even though most African countries face similar health and developmental challenges, researchers work in silos, wasting limited human resources and infrastructure.
For the full article please click here: FULL ARTICLE
18th March 2016
Central to all metabolomics studies is the accurate identification and elucidation of changes in small molecule profiles related to changes stimulated by the environment or pathogen attack whether in humans, animals or plants. This approach makes use of analytical techniques such as mass spectrometry and nuclear magnetic resonance and has received more attention in recent years. Compounds identified through metabolomic profiling represent a range of intermediate metabolic pathways that may serve as important biomarkers in animal and plant research and is therefore considered a valuable approach for elucidating metabolic changes associated with a phenotypic change.
An exciting 5-day Metabolomics workshop was hosted between the 7th and 11th of March 2016 in series of ‘omic-based workshops hosted and funded by the ACGT and Bioinformatics Service Platform (BSP). The workshop aimed to provide a platform for discussion of the key questions and challenges in the field of metabolomics, from study design to metabolite identification. This workshop was designed to include lectures, computer-based tutorial sessions, participant presentations and interactive group discussion.
The ACGT were extremely privileged regarding the facilitation of these workshops as they managed to secure several international and local trainers; all of whom possess a wealth of expertise and knowledge in different aspects of Proteomics and Metabolomics. International trainers included: Dr Reza Salek (University of Cambridge), Dr Karl Burgess (University of Glasgow) and Prof Ron Wehrens (Wageningen University). South African trainers included: Prof Ian Dubery, Dr Edwin Madala and Mr Fidele Tugizimana (all from the University of Johannesburg), as well as Prof Alvaro Viljoen (Tshwane University of Technology).
The workshop kicked off with a fun “ice-breaker” session, where attendees had a few minutes to introduce themselves, their research interests and their expectations from the workshop. The remainder of the workshop was made up of a combination of lecturers, hand-on tutorials, group presentations, group discussions and computer-based exercises. The workshop ended positively, as participants and trainers were enthusiastic about setting up a South African metabolomics community moving forward, where the community are able to learn from each other based on shared experience. Possible future collaborations were also discussed.
With the great success of this workshop, the ACGT look forward to hosting many more future workshops like these in the future! For more information on upcoming bioinformatics training events, visit the events page on the ACGT website (www.acgt.co.za), like us on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/ACGT.biotec) or contact Farhahna Allie at az.ca1550337877.ju@e1550337877illaf1550337877
2nd March 2016
Professor Viness Pillay, Director of the Wits Advanced Drug Delivery Platform Research Unit and his team have been awarded a new Center of Excellence (CoE) in “Translational Neuromaterials” by the African Network for Drugs and Diagnostics Innovation (ANDI). This new CoE will be integrated into their existing CoE on “Advanced Drug Delivery Technology” previously awarded by ANDI and to will be renamed as “Advanced Drug Delivery Technology and Translational Neuromaterials”. The focus of the all-encompassing CoE will be on the development of drug delivery technologies specifically targeting neurological disorders and includes the brain, spinal cord, cranial nerves, peripheral nerves and nerve roots.
Emphasis will be placed on epilepsy, neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, cerebrovascular diseases including stroke, migraine and other headache disorders, multiple sclerosis, neuroinfections, brain tumours, traumatic disorders such as brain trauma and neurological disorders as a result of malnutrition.
The future of nanoscience is poised to make significant life changing breakthroughs for human kind in this defined area of Translational Neuromaterials, i.e. advanced biomaterials modified for the enhanced treatment of neurological disorders. The team will design translational neuromaterials for pharmaceutically-enhanced neuro-gadgets and implantable neurodevices to target human neuro-spaces that will allow us to effectively treat individuals suffering from chronically debilitating CNS illnesses.
Story by: The Wits Health Sciences Research News – February 2016