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14 May 2019 | Story Thabo Kessah | Photo Tsepo Moeketsi
Prof Ashafa
Prof Ashafa’s research documents plants used by the Basotho in the management of different ailments.

The Phytomedicine and Phytopharmacology Research Programme (PPRP) in the Department of Plant Sciences on the Qwaqwa Campus researches the biological effects of medicinal plants used in the folkloric medicine of the Eastern Free State, particularly to explore the values and contribution of indigenous knowledge systems (IKS) towards broader scientific research. This is according to the programme’s principal investigator and researcher, NRF C2-rated researcher, Professor Anofi Ashafa. 

 “Our research is mainly aimed at documenting plants used by the Basotho in the management of different ailments and to further discover, isolate, and purify active phytoconstituents that are responsible for disease curation or amelioration, thereby assisting in the global promotion of accessible and affordable medication in developing countries,” said Prof Ashafa. 

Since 2012, the PPRP has worked extensively on Basotho medicinal plants (BMP) used as antimicrobials, antioxidants, antidiabetics, antitubercular, anticancer, anthelmintic, and antidiarrheal agents, starting from biological activities up to the  evaluation of the toxicity of these plants for the kidney, liver, and heart functions in order to establish safe dosage parameters. These activities have led to the discovery of four potent antidiabetic biomolecules that are awaiting the processes of patency and commercialisation. Additional outputs include 104 published peer-reviewed articles , 7 postdoctoral fellows, 6 PhDs, 9 master’s, and 16 honours graduates. 

“Our research informs teaching and the development of expertise in ethnobotany, 
phytomedicine, and phytopharmacology in order to contribute to the National Development Plan (NDP) through human capacity development, skills, and knowledge transfer.

The group is also investigating some medicinal plants on the endangered red list of the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), through micropropagation and field trials as well as proposing conservation strategies to preserve these valuable species.

The PPRP consists of postdoctoral fellows, PhD, master’s, and honours students and research is done in collaboration with several local and international universities as well as the Agricultural Research Council of South Africa. 


News Archive

#Women'sMonth: Save the children
2017-08-10

Description: Trudi O'Neill Tags: : rotaviruses, young children, Dr Trudi O’Neill, Department of Microbial, Biochemical and Food Biotechnology, vaccine 

Dr Trudi O’Neill, Senior lecturer in the Department of
Microbial, Biochemical and Food Biotechnology.
Photo: Anja Aucamp

Dr Trudi O’Neill, Senior lecturer in the Department of Microbial, Biochemical and Food Biotechnology, is conducting research on rotavirus vaccines.

Dr O’Neill was inspired to conduct research on this issue through her fascination with the virus. “The biology of rotaviruses, especially the genome structure and the virus’ interaction with the host, is fascinating.”

“In fact, it is estimated that, globally, ALL children will be infected with rotavirus before the age of five, irrespective of their socio-economic standing. However, infants and young children in poor countries are more vulnerable due to inadequate healthcare. The WHO estimates that approximately 215 000 deaths occur each year. This roughly equates to eight Airbus A380 planes, the largest commercial carrier with a capacity of approximately 500 seats, filled with only children under the age of five, crashing each week of every year.”

Alternative to expensive medicines 
“Currently, there are two vaccines that have been licensed for global use. However, these vaccines are expensive and poor countries, where the need is the greatest, are struggling to introduce them sustainably. It is therefore appealing to study rotaviruses, as it is scientifically challenging, but could at the same time have an impact on child health,” Dr O’Neill said.

The main focus of Dr O’Neill’s research is to develop a more affordable vaccine that can promote child vaccination in countries/areas that cannot afford the current vaccines.

All about a different approach 

When asked about the most profound finding of her research, Dr O’Neill responded: “It is not so much a finding, but rather the approach. My rotavirus research group is making use of yeast as vehicle to produce a sub-unit vaccine. These microbes are attractive, as they are relatively easy to manipulate and cheap to cultivate. Downstream production costs can therefore be reduced. The system we use was developed by my colleagues, Profs Koos Albertyn and Martie Smit, and allows for the potential use of any yeast. This enables us to screen a vast number of yeasts in order to identify the best yeast producer.”

Vaccination recently acquired a bad name in the media for its adverse side effects. As researcher, Dr O’Neill has this to say: “Vaccines save lives. By vaccinating your child, you don’t just protect your own child from a potentially deadly infection, but also other children in your community that might be too young to be vaccinated or have pre-existing health problems that prevents vaccination.” 

A future without rotavirus vaccination?

Dr O’Neill believes a future without rotavirus vaccination will be a major step backwards, as the impact of rotavirus vaccines has been profound. “Studies in Mexico and Malawi actually show a reduction in deaths. A colleague in Mozambique has commented on the empty hospital beds that amazed both clinicians and scientists only one year after the introduction of the vaccine in that country. Although many parents, mostly in developed countries, don’t have to fear dehydrating diarrhoea and potential hospitalisation of their babies due to rotavirus infection anymore, such an infection could still be a death sentence in countries that have not been able to introduce the vaccine in their national vaccination programmes,” she said. 

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