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UKZN and DUT join forces to tackle COVID-19 through medicinal plant research

From left: Professor Mahmoud Soliman, Dr Depika Dwarka, Professor Himansu Baijnath, Professor Jason Mellem, and Clement Agoni
From left: Professor Mahmoud Soliman, Dr Depika Dwarka, Professor Himansu Baijnath, Professor Jason Mellem, and Clement Agoni

Scientists from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and the Durban University of Technology (DUT) have come together to identify bioactive compounds from South African plants that could potentially be effective in the treatment against SARS-CoV-2. 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", was recently published in The South African Journal of Botany.

SARS-CoV-2 has triggered a recent pandemic of respiratory disease now called COVID-19, with no specific antiviral drug or vaccine for the treatment of this pandemic. Most treatment strategies focus on symptomatic management and supportive therapy. As a result, several drug discovery efforts are ongoing for potential treatment agents, with medicinal plants gradually gaining prominence. 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.

UKZN’s Professor Mahmoud Soliman, 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. The process that entailed molecular modelling identified arabic acid, L-canavanine, uzarin and hypoxoside to be "favourable for the treatment of the virus".

A leader of the project, UKZN alumnus Dr Depika Dwarka of 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.

UKZN spokesperson
Professor Mahmoud Soliman: 0764911521, [email protected]

DUT spokesperson
Dr Depika Dwarka: 0845513479, [email protected].

Editorial contacts
Nkosinathi Bhekani Dlamini [email protected]