South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC)
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Herbal Drugs Research Unit


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Unit Director: Prof Alvaro Viljoen

Herbal medicine has not been officially recognised in most countries, despite the continued use of medicinal plants over many centuries and an upsurge in the popularity and use of these natural resources throughout the last decade. Consequently, education, training and research in this area have not been rendered due attention and support. The quantity and quality of the safety and efficacy data on phytomedicines are far from sufficient to meet the criteria needed to support their use worldwide. This lack of research data can be attributed partly to the fact that health care policies have neglected to adequately address phytomedicines. However, the absence of appropriate or accepted research methodology for evaluating traditional and herbal medicines remains the biggest stumbling block to the commercial development of phytomedicines. It is envisaged that the Unit in Herbal Drug Research will use modern technology to add substantial value to assist in developing some of South Africa’s botanical assets into commercial products. In this way, the unit may be instrumental in unlocking and advancing the possible socio-economic value of our indigenous resources to the benefit of all South Africans.

The main aim of the Unit is to conduct technologically advanced scientific research, and to make basic knowledge readily available to stakeholders, in order to promote the quality, safety and efficacy (QSE) of herbal medicines.

The following aims have been identified to achieve this goal: 

  • Create a repository of authentic voucher material for reference purposes.
  • Optimise extraction techniques for herbal materials to produce superior botanical extracts in terms of total and biomarker yield.
  • Document the chemotypic variation for the most important medicinal plants in South Africa through extensive field work and in situ sampling.
  • In addition to authentic raw material standards, biomarkers will be isolated using a range of preparative techniques from the most important medicinal plants. These compounds will be used as reference standards to develop quality assurance protocols.
  • Establish an online chromatographic database of all commercially important indigenous medicinal plants.  Access to such a database, to rapidly retrieve analytical methods and chromatographic fingerprints, will contribute immensely to the quality assessment of herbal drugs and further stimulate and accelerate research on South African medicinal plants.
  • To establish a fast and reliable zebrafish assay to document the potential toxicity of herbal extracts and isolated constituents.
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Last updated:
29 February, 2016
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