UP researcher uncovers benefits of African plants

Professor Namrita Lall from the University of Pretoria's Department of Plant Science is conducting a research on the important usage of African traditional medicine.

Professor Namrita Lall of the department of plant science at the University of Pretoria is conducting research which focuses on the important use of African traditional medicine.

She said South Africa had tremendous plant diversity that was largely untapped in terms of its potential for medicinal and cosmeceutical purposes.

“With about 25 000 known species, this country is third only to Brazil and Indonesia as far as biodiversity is concerned. This constitutes about one tenth of all plant species in the world. There is a huge amount of work needed to verify if and how traditional remedies and local plants actually work,” she said.

Solutions on how to treat serious diseases like cancer and tuberculosis (TB) or formulation of new acne creams and kinds of toothpaste to fight gum disease, could be found in South Africa’s indigenous plants.

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Lall is internationally recognised for her contributions to bioprospecting from traditional knowledge on medicinal plants.

Her research focus has been on scientifically validating the uses of plants for developing cosmeceuticals.

Cosmeceuticals are hybrids between drugs and cosmetic products and are able to enhance both health and beauty by external application.

The combined of usage of plants traditionally coupled with all the rare plants found in the country prompted Lall to evaluate the potential of unexplored plants and develop products which can be applied topically.

“A number of plants have been proven to have effect for skin problems, for example, melasma, spots, pigmentation and acne, and effective cosmeceutical-prototypes products have been prepared from those,” she said.

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She said that seeing these products on a supermarket shelf was still a long way to go, but it would be worthwhile.

Lall is now working with one of her doctoral students, Richa Sharma, on upscaling the processes for extracting valuable compounds from the plants so that they can be used on a commercial scale.

Sharma is exploring the use of the Leucosidea sericea shrub (also known as Oldwood) and has found that chemical compounds in its silky grey leaves reduced the inflammation caused by a particular acne-causing bacterium.

The plant is said to be traditionally used as an astringent and during a scientific investigation was proven effective for application for acne.

“Oldwood is close to commercialisation and a bioprospecting permit from the government has been obtained for this indigenous plant. One of the species of Helichrysum, has been proven to have SPF boosting effect which has been proven in clinical studies,” said Sharma.

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Lall is equally passionate about a future where products from indigenous plants will not only benefit companies and consumers, but also the local communities.

“I dream of seeing small factories in local communities where they can process the plants and produce the products themselves,” she said.

 

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  AUTHOR
Felicia Nkhwashu
Journalist

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