UI advisers helping African entrepreneurs test natural products
URBANA – For generations, African elders have taken careful note of plants that seemed to have health benefits.
Now, with the help of advisers from the University of Illinois and Rutgers, African entrepreneurs hope to bring those beneficial properties to the global marketplace – perhaps including them in pharmaceuticals or nutritional supplements.
To encourage those efforts, UI plant physiologist Mary Ann Lila and UI agricultural economist A. Bryan Endres went to Tanzania this summer to speak at a workshop on African natural products.
Lila said researchers at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania are studying plants that could help diabetics and malaria patients.
"The hottest data we have now are on plants with anti-malarial activity," she said. "I cannot name the plants because of intellectual property issues ... but the data is very nice and promising."
Other plants could be used to address diabetes.
"We are doing a lot with plants that have hypoglycemic properties when ingested, lowering blood sugar (and providing) immense benefits to diabetic patients," Lila said.
The anti-malarial drugs would have the biggest impact in Africa and South America, where malaria is common. But other bioactive substances from plants may have broader applications in Western markets. Those include substances with anti-inflammatory and anti-fatigue properties, she said.
In conjunction with the Global Institute for BioExploration (GIBEX) – which was established by the UI and Rutgers – Lila has been active in promoting "Screens to Nature" technology, which screens plants for properties not in the laboratory, but in the field.
She takes laboratory-based, drug-discovery bioassays and adapts those tests so they can be used in the field.
"In Africa, we concentrate on infectious diseases, but we also pay attention to traditional knowledge and validating plants for health that the elders have believed in for years," she said.
In some cases, there may not have been any scientific basis for those beliefs, other than "observation over time," she said.
The three-day workshop was supported by a grant given by the National Collegiate Innovators & Inventors Alliance for promoting entrepreneurship in natural products in Tanzania.
The work in Tanzania has been going on since April 2007, when scientists from the University of Dar es Salaam were first trained in "Screens to Nature" technology.
Lila said the project's aim is to reverse the flow of resources and research and development, so Tanzania reaps the benefits of ventures it undertakes. The project also aims to reverse the "brain drain" from Tanzania so the country can retain some of its brightest scientists.
Lila said the scientists at the University of Dar es Salaam are eager to move their long-term research toward commercial products but "do not have the infrastructure or expertise to do so."
That's where the workshop came in. It gave participants instructions, as well as connections and resources, to move toward product development and marketing – either on their own or in partnership with U.S. universities.
Now that the conference is over, four students at the Tanzanian university have been assigned to test plants. Once the plants are screened, scientists at the university will prioritize the plants based on a "bioactivity index" developed from the data. Then extracts will be collected for further analysis.
"We hope to identify leads that will have significant health implications," Lila said.
Two companies from the U.S. – McNeil Nutritionals and Phytomedics – have shown interest in working with GIBEX to evaluate potential leads from the plant extracts.
"Other pharmaceutical companies have also shown interest in this initiative since we returned from Tanzania," Lila said.
Endres said his role in the workshop dealt mainly with protecting intellectual property and ensuring that royalties stay in Tanzania.
"The goal is to take this workshop and hold it in other areas," he said, citing Kenya and South Africa as places that are ripe to host similar workshops.
GIBEX has 18 member countries, many of them in Africa and central Asia, but members also include New Zealand, Chile, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic and the U.S.