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Wednesday 20th June 2018

Herbalists search for malaria cure

29th January 2008

Plant chemists in Kenya are studying the country's 'natural pharmacy' of traditional herbal remedies in the hope of finding more compounds that can be developed into anti-malaria drugs.


Traditional healers are collecting samples of plants they use to treat the disease, which is rife in sub-Saharan African countries.

Scientists at the Kenya Medical Research Institute, or KEMRI, have already tested hundreds of different plant compounds sent in weekly by herbalists. Five have been subjected to further study.

The plants are also cross-referenced with botanical data at Kenya's National Herbarium to ensure they are correctly identified.

In order for a plant compound to be turned into a commercial drug, the team must first separate hundreds of compounds within a plant and test each one.

To qualify for development, a compound must kill the malaria parasite under laboratory conditions, before it moves on to be tested on animals.

Compounds that kill three quarters of the parasite in animals are thought worth developing as a "lead compound" which could form the main constituent of an anti-malaria drug.

So far, five compounds have reached the animal testing stage, but been rejected because they did not kill 75% of the malaria parasite.

African scientists are keen to find a cure for the illness because 90% of malaria cases are found in African countries.

The research is not the only project dedicated to extracting, testing and classifying active ingredients in plants and trees; many more scientists in Kenya alone are carrying out similar tests.

Malaria currently kills 7,000 daily in Africa, even with current therapies, the most important of which is based on the herb artemisia, which has been used to treat malaria for generations by traditional Chinese medicine practitioners.

But Geoffrey Rukunga, who is leading the project at KEMRI, says inadequate funding is the biggest obstacle to a breakthrough.

Kenya does not lack qualified phytochemists to extract and purify compounds, but it lacks the money to pay and equip them.

One team lacks an in vitro screening facility, while another lacks equipment to test for toxicity in humans.

KEMRI needs a spectroscopy machine to determine chemical structure of isolated compounds, and high-performance liquid chromatography must be limited to use on the most promising compounds.

Intellectual property rights legislation is clear, but there is no legal framework to protect indigenous communities from exploitation by providing for benefit sharing if they collaborate on such projects.

These problems have made it hard to systematise the search for the next malaria superdrug.

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