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Biology Articles » Ethnobiology » Study of African traditional medicine will begin world-first clinical trial

Study of African traditional medicine will begin world-first clinical trial

Described as a hotspot of botanical diversity, there are more than 20,000 indigenous plant species in South Africa. Several thousand of them are used by traditional healers every day in that country for treating a range of problems from the common cold to serious diseases such as AIDS. How safe and effective these treatments are will be the focus of The International Center for Indigenous Phytotherapy Studies (TICIPS), a collaborative research effort between the University of Missouri-Columbia and the University of the Western Cape, South Africa. The center will be funded by a $4.4 million, 4-year grant from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicines (NCCAM), a division of the National Institutes of Health.

"The American and South African citzens have strong interests in complementary and alternative medicine practices, but little is known of their safety and effectiveness," said Bill Folk, senior associate dean for research in the School of Medicine, principal investigator of the grant and co-director of TICIPS.

Folk and U.S. research teams from MU, University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC), Missouri Botanical Garden, University of Texas and Georgetown University will partner with Quinton Johnson, director of the South African Herbal Science and Medicine Institute and co-director of TICIPS at the University of the Western Cape, University of Cape Town, University of Kwazulu-Natal (UKZ-N) in South Africa, and South African traditional healers. Together, they will study the medicinal properties, safety and effectiveness of several African plants in use today by traditional healers. South Africa is home to more than 200,000 traditional healers who care for more than 27 million people.

"TICIPS is especially significant, since it presents the very first opportunity for medical doctors, scientists and traditional healers to internationally cooperate as equal partners in exploring indigenous African phytotherapies for AIDS, secondary infection and immune modulation," Johnson said. "Furthermore, TICIPS creates a unique bridge between Western and African medicine systems, with the aim of bringing hope, health and healing to all."

The Center's first projects will examine two plants used widely in South Africa. One of those projects, led by Kathy Goggin of UMKC and Doug Wilson of UKZ-N, will investigate whether Sutherlandia, or Lessertia frutescens, is safe in HIV-infected patients and prevents wasting. A previous, small pilot study by TICIPS researchers studied the safety of Sutherlandia in healthy adults. This was the first study of its kind, according to Folk.

Other projects will focus on Artemisia afra, which is widely used to treat respiratory infections. There is suggestive evidence that A. afra might be useful in treating Tuberculosis, which will be explored by TICIPS researchers from the University of Texas Medical Branch - Galveston and the University of Cape Town. Another project will examine the plant's potential for preventing or treating cervical cancer. TICIPS researchers from Mizzou, Georgetown University, UKZ-N and the University of the Western Cape will collaborate on the project.

"A real strength of TICIPS comes from the contributions of colleagues outside of the life sciences. Communication is a strong component in order to let the public know what we find," Folk said. "Working with the MU School of Journalism and colleagues at the University of the Western Cape will ensure that our findings about the safety of these plants are distributed among the public, not only in South Africa, but throughout the world. Also, we enjoy a very strong partnership with the Missouri Botanical Garden, one of the world's outstanding botanical centers. Nature has thousands of secrets that we have yet to discover. This is a big first step in uncovering some of those secrets and seeing how we can better understand these alternative medicines."

University of Missouri-Columbia. December 2007.

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