Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University‘s Maryna van de Venter is testing the medicinal properties of plants from around the world, including Romania, Egypt and Nigeria, screening mainly for anti-diabetic, anti-cancer and anti-HIV/Aids activity – and yielding a number of positive results.
The Associate Professor in Biochemistry has spent the last 15 years helping to take NMMU to the forefront of medicinal plant research in South Africa, particular in the complex field of anti-diabetic research, leading to her expertise being sought by universities across the globe. She has published 73 peer-reviewed journal articles.
“We have very good screening in vitro [in test tubes] for anti-diabetic activity. Diabetes is so complicated – but we’ve been optimising our system for 15 years. It’s a good system.” All her research is conducted in-vitro, and uses laser-based instruments to monitor the “mechanism of action” occurring in samples. She collaborates with a number of different researchers and departments, including pharmacy, microbiology and chemistry.
Lately, she has also been testing for “neuro protection activity” in plants, which could potentially be used in the fight against Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ALS [the acronym for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or motor neuron disease] and other diseases affecting the brain. She is pioneering South African research into the medicinal qualities of mushrooms, which has been widely investigated in Europe and Asia and some countries in Africa, but not at all in South Africa.
Van de Venter also works closely with the country’s traditional healers – and has been testing the medicinal properties of a number of plants used in traditional medicine. Partnering with Elana Storm, the horticulturalist responsible for NMMU’s gardens, she has been instrumental in setting up a medicinal garden at NMMU’s Missionvale Campus, where traditional healers can grow their own plants – and participate in regular workshops run by Van de Venter and her postgrad students (arranged via three national traditional healers’ associations), to facilitate the sharing of information between researchers and healers.
“We work on plants that have been published in books already, as traditional healers won’t tell you what they use. They have a belief that if they give their secrets away, they lose power.
“We have done a lot of work on the African potato, including testing the different species, as this is most commonly used in traditional medicine … We have found that there are quite significant differences between the different species. People use the plant to treat cancer, but one species actually stimulated cancer cell growth … The African potato’s most well-known use is to boost the immune system – and it can definitely do the job.” She shares her results at the workshops with healers.
“We also try to explain our view of certain diseases, and the Western way of diagnosing and treating. Sometimes they will tell you how they diagnose and treat. It’s a voluntary exchange of information.”
Regarding her work on the plants of other countries, Van de Venter said: “We work a lot on Nigerian plants, in collaboration with the University of Lagos … We have been looking at anti-cancer and anti-inflammation activities … We have had quite a few plants that show good anti-cancer activity.”
She has also tested a number of Romanian plants for anti-cancer activity, while the plants from Egypt have been tested for anti-diabetic activities. The research on the Egyptian and Nigerian plants has been funded by the African Laser Centre.