Researching Medicinal Plants in Botswana

Recently I visited the lab of a researcher at University of Botswana whose aim is to find plants that can be used to treat illnesses among humans and animals.  He showed me three different labs.  The first had small glass bottles with dark orange dried plant material in a thin film around the bottles.  He explained the process of fractionation that takes the essence of the plant that will then be combined with a solvent to create a workable substance to test.  He had paper packets of cassia abreviata, moringa oleifera, and another plant which cannot be revealed to the public yet because of intellectual property issues.  He and his team work with a particular traditional healer from the Maun area, near the Okavango Delta.  Interestingly, many healers are found in this location because of the high level of biodiversity compared to other regions of the country.

The traditional healer they work with tells them of the plants he uses with his clients who are HIV-positive and has kept a written record for years.  He has a feel for which plants make an impact on these people, and in which way, and so the researchers are busy testing them in laboratories to see if they can understand how it works.  With cassia abbreviata, for example, their research shows that cells are protected and the virus is not able to bind when the plant extract is present.  The next question is, which compund of the plant is doing this?  The researchers will test various compounds of the plant to see if they can come up with an answer, but Mr Leteane suspects that the synergy of all the parts is what makes it effective.

I first met Mr Leteane during the recent national HIV conference in Gaborone, Botswana.  He gave a presentation on his research with cassia abreviata and its possible effects on cells infected with HIV.  The research thus far has only been conducted in the lab, yet to reach animals and humans.

He leads me to another lab where students from Pitzer and a Motswana student are creating vaccines from plants to treat diseases such as: lumpy skin disease in cows, foot and mouth disease which affects cows, as well as rabies, and the human-papilloma virus (hpv).

Downstairs we step into the main lab.  Mr Leteane shows me monkey kidney cells, some that are healthy and others that are infected with HIV.  He brought the HIV-infected cells over from the Harvard Lab nearby in town.  The healthy cells are full and create a smooth continuous carpet.  Those infected with HIV and dying are thin and sparsely distributed, not touching like the live ones.  He explains the process of introducing the plant extracts into the infected cells both before infection and post-infection to observe the differences.  It is thought that cassia abbreviata binds with the cell and prevents the virus from binding with the cell.

He and his team are working to find treatment but as with many scientists in the world of HIV, they are also looking for a successful vaccine which will keep a person from getting the virus no matter how many times they are exposed to it.  Oftentimes in the world of pharmaceuticals, natural compounds collected from foreign lands are synthesized in a lab and a patent is placed on the synthetic version of a naturally-occurring substance.  There are a lot of politics surrounding intellectual property rights and biopiracy with respect to this practice.  Aware of this ethically-questionable practice, Mr Leteane and his team will be doing all they can to assure the knowledge of medicinal plants used in Botswana benefits Botswana, and is not sold out to the highest bidder.  It may take years until their research reaches the public and the mainstream of people living with HIV in Botswana, but they certainly are on the right track.

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