Scientist from UKZN and DUT look to plants to find treatment for Covid-19, Newsline

Durban – The University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and the Durban University of Technology (DUT) have joined forces in conducting a study to identify bioactive compounds from South African Plants that could potentially be effective in the treatment of SARS-CoV-2, otherwise known as Covid-19.

Scientists from UKZN and DUT have done the first phase of the research project titled, ‘Identification of potential SARS-CoV-2 inhibitors from South African medicinal plant extracts using molecular modelling approaches’.

The scientists in a joint statement said the study comes at a time where there is no specific antiviral drug or vaccine for the treatment of this pandemic, most treatment strategies focus on symptomatic management and supportive therapy, and as a result, several drug discovery efforts are ongoing for potential treatment agents, with medicinal plants gradually gaining prominence.

The study has two phases, the first phase started 6 months ago, has been concluded and was recently published in The South African Journal of Botany.

UKZN’s Professor Mahmoud Soliman who is the Dean and Head of the School of Health Sciences as well as head of the Molecular Bio-Computation and Drug Design Laboratory, together with his doctoral student and laboratory assistant, Clement Agoni; found during the first stage of the study 29 compounds that are present in South African indigenous plants used for traditional medicinal purposes.

Professor Soliman said the process that entailed molecular modelling identified arabic acid, L-canavanine, uzarin and hypoxoside to be ‘favourable for the treatment of the virus’.

The selected traditional plants are known to be effective and are used in our communities. We did the screening of all the plants to identify compounds effective in the treatment of Covid-19.

“The second phase will conduct testing on animal models to give us answers. We are now working on that with our colleagues from DUT,” he said.

Soliman said one factor is that 25% of world wide drugs prescribed today comes from traditional plants as a starting block. About 80% of the South African population still use traditional medicines to meet their primary needs.

For the study, the plant species chosen were selected based on their use in traditional medicine for fighting the common cold, flu, respiratory infections, and malaria, among other ailments and diseases.

“We cannot deny that traditional plants are important, however there is a lot of debate about traditional medicine. I am the biggest fan of traditional medicine. Digoxin, which is the number one treatment used for heart disease, comes from plants. Aspirin comes from Plants. After the completion of the second phase, the process will go under clinical trial. With the support from the universities, the government and other funders we are hopeful that we will see good results very soon,”said Soliman.

A leader of the project, UKZN alumnus Dr Depika Dwarka from DUT’s Department of Biotechnology and Food Technology, said the study was the first to scientifically examine South African indigenous plants for treatment against the coronavirus.

“The next stage of the research is underway focussing on the In vitro antiviral activity of the compounds identified as potential inhibitors. If the study secures promising results, further research will be done using animal modules. ‘Consequently, these compounds could serve as a starting point for the discovery of a novel SARS-CoV-2 therapeutic,’said Dwarka.

Other co-leaders of the research are DUT’s Professor Jason Mellem and UKZN’s Professor Himansu Baijnath, who is an honorary research professor and past curator of the Ward Herbarium at the School of Life Sciences on the Westville campus.

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