(Published - 28 August 2019)
When Dr Kenechukwu Obikeze was in his second year of study at the University of Nigeria, his mother suffered from a stomach infection which doctors struggled to heal. Then she turned to traditional medicine and she recovered in no time.
It intrigued him so much that he dedicated his research to traditional medicine - at masters and doctorate level. And he has made some ground-breaking discoveries.
“After my mother was suffering for a long time, the infection disappeared within a week of consulting the traditional healer she had been referred to. It struck me that there is this valuable resource that we have in traditional medicinal plants that, to some extent, is overlooked as we are more focused on the western medicines. So that got me interested in doing research in traditional medicines,” said Dr Obikeze who is a pharmacology lecturer at the University of the Western Cape (UWC).
Dr Obikeze is currently researching cardiovascular pharmacology at UWC with a focus on identifying new drug compounds from plants that are used in traditional medicines in South Africa.
He has, for example, evaluated the effects of Leonotis leonurus - commonly known as wild dagga - used by traditional healers to treat cardiovascular diseases. For his master’s research he found that when you use hot water extracts from the plant, it reduces blood pressure, but when you use alcohol it actual increases the heart rate.
“That told us is that there is more than one compound producing the effect in the plant, depending on which extract you use you can get a different compound,” he explained. And he made that the topic of his doctoral research, in which he isolated that compound - something that had never been done before.
In addition to the wild dagga, Dr Obikeze also investigated plants such as Hyericum perforatum (St John’s wort), Centella asiatica (Gotu Kola), and Crataegus monogyma (Hawthorn Berries) which he said is used as an alternative medicine in countries like Germany.
Dr Obikeze believes that his research, which is funded by the National Research Foundation, is critical to the healthcare system in general. “To some extent, the findings validate the use of traditional medicines. One of the arguments that people have against traditional medicines is that there is no scientific evidence to back their usage.
“This validation shows that scientifically these traditional medicinal plants, in fact, have that effect. It is one step in the process if someone wants to do clinical trials they have evidence of efficacy in animals. If it is effective in animals there is a good possibility that it can be effective in human beings as well.”
Dr Obikeze added that as much as National Health Insurance (NHI) and other topics still dominate talks in the healthcare sector, most people still use traditional medicine extensively for treatment. “Then it becomes very important to bring it into the mainstream to formalise it so that it is not this forgotten part of the healthcare system. The more we can formalise the practice of traditional medicine using scientific theories, the better for the patients who have to use those services.”