The first post-pandemic Regional Plant Biotechnology forum event held at the University of Johannesburg

The ongoing struggles against different diseases has led to continuous acknowledgement of current and potential benefits of medicinal plants. As such, humankind continues to pursue drug discovery from various parts of plants. Specifically, scientists have acknowledged the value of pharmaceutically-active compounds extracted from plants. Consequently,  the African Centre for Gene Technologies (ACGT), in collaboration with the University of Johannesburg hosted a Regional Plant Biotechnology Forum themed: “Plant-derived compounds for diseases of prevalence in South Africa”. In rotational fashion, as with the previous ACGT plant forums, a very interactive and beneficial biotechnology forum was held on the 22nd of November 2022 at the TheKerzner@UJ at the University of Johannesburg.

Several plant scientists and chemists were given a platform to share their research findings and knowledge on how plant-derived compounds can be further utilized for treatment of diseases. The keynote speakers shared different interesting topics as follows:

Prof Vinesh Maharaj from the University of Pretoria highlighted the importance of developing a natural product library to create a diverse library of natural extracts, fractions and chemical compounds endowed with biological activity which can be used for research programs in a sustainable manner ready for high-throughput biological screening.

Presentation title: Advancing Natural Products Research in South Africa – Development of a natural product library ready for high throughput biological screening. 

Dr Kennedy Ngwira from the University of the Witwatersrand shared knowledge on the advantages of bio-renewable resources. The presentation demonstrated the use of bio-aromatics as precursors for the synthesis of potential UV absorbers. Some of the synthesized compounds showed better UV absorption than those currently on the market.

Presentation title: Plant-Derived Aromatics as Chemical Building Blocks for the Synthesis of Functional Organic Compounds.

Prof Lyndy McGaw from the University of Pretoria emphasized the application of medicinal plants as antimicrobials (against diarrhea and mastitis), antiparasitics (anthelmintic and anti-tick), as well as inflammation and immune modulation agents in animals. The presentation further demonstrated the research done in poultry – inclusive of surveys, in vitro activity and in vivo tests.

Presentation title: Phytomedicines for Animal Health.

Mr Brenden Moyo from the University of Johannesburg presented research findings on the potential impact of medicinal plant extracts in treatment of human malignant melanoma and cervical cancer. The presentation demonstrated on the determination of the inhibitory concentration,  determination of the bioactive compounds and further confirmed the mode of cell death.

Presentation title: Investigating the in vitro anti-cancerous activity of Ocimum sanctum and O. kilimandscharicum.

 Ms Kgaugelo Masia from the University of Johannesburg shared a presentation describing the benefits of medicinal plant extracts in the treatment of malaria in South Africa. The presentation emphasized aspects of plant collection, plant preparation, extraction and in vitro treatment.

Presentation title: Medicinal plants useful for Malaria therapy in South Africa.

Ms Portia Raphela-Choma from the University of Johannesburg elaborated on the cytotoxicity effects of medicinal plant-derived compounds on human cancerous cell lines. The discussion covered the evaluation of cell viability, apoptosis, mitochondrial membrane potential, ATP and caspase activity and compound molecular mechanism.

Presentation title: Cytotoxic effect of Iso-mukaadial acetate on colon and pancreatic cancer cells.

 The regional plant biotechnology forum attracted participants from the Universities of Pretoria, the Witwatersrand and Johannesburg.

The forum resulted in healthy dialogue and here are some key takeaways:

  • There is a clear need for follow-up discussions on specific points that were brought up during the meeting such as the potential “artefacts” and other pitfalls in the compound screening and evaluation processes.
  • The event shared a spotlight on young plant science talent (biochemists and chemists) that will benefit from nurturing and mentoring moving forward.
  • There are numerous opportunities for building collaborative consortiums in areas such as toxicity screening.
  • Stakeholders from the University of Pretoria offered access to their Biodiscovery Center and to share existing facilities and expertise where necessary.
  • It was great to meet all the scientists in person after the long lockdown hiatus and there will be additional forums in the coming year.