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Chemistry prof explores economic and medicinal values of plants

19 June 2014, 12:56

WSU chemist Prof Adebola Oyedeji made history recently when she became the first ever female academic from the institution’s chemistry and chemical technology department to deliver a Professional Inaugural Lecture. This was also the first time a female has achieved this feat from the University’s Faculty of Science, Engineering and Technology.

Her efforts follow hot on the heels of another female academic, Prof Nobesuthu Sokhela, whose inaugural lecture in April saw her giving a sobering account of the state of rehabilitation of mental health care users in the Eastern Cape.

After an arduous journey spanning 17 years of unrelenting research, Oyedeji’s body of work was laid bare for all to see at the Mthatha Health Resource Centre in a paper titled “Tapping into the world of Terpenoids”.

“Through this work, my focus over the years has been to uncover the hidden potential of terpenoids (large and diverse class of naturally occurring organic chemicals derived from five-carbon isoprene units assembled and modified in thousands of ways) present in some plants for medicinal and economic purposes. How can these plants both cure us from diseases, and how can we advance our economy through these plants,” said Oyedeji.

Her lecture focused on the chemical studies of isolation of terpenoids from medicinal plants for economical and medicinal purposes.

Oyedeiji’s lecture was broadly divided into three subgroups – the study of essential oils from higher plants; studies of essential oils from weeds; and isolation of triterpenoids (a type of terpene containing 30 carbon atoms) and its derivatization (transformation of chemical compound into a product).

“Before now, plants that have odours are planted for ornamental purposes. However, research has shown that these plants can also be used for medicinal purposes,” said Oyedeji.

She said in her research, she isolated two new compounds from the essential oils of Calltris intratropica - a tree planted mainly “for beautification of cities and towns.”

Oyedeji found that one of these compounds has good antifungal properties that can be used to treating skin infection or in preparation of dermatological creams.

Her address also focused on her research into Artemisia afra (umhlonyane), a well-known South African species of plant commonly used during winter for treating flu and respiratory illness.

“Artemisia afra has great economic potential to our community/country considering the international market value of Artemisia species. Even more good news is that studies from three different Provinces reveal that not all South African Artemisia afra contain the toxicity compound common in these plants. Instead 80% of the plants studied possessed medicinal properties,” said Oyedeji.

She also delved into the study of weeds – a famer’s worst nightmare as it can pose a great threat to farmlands by destroying crops through a hostile takeover of land.

However, according to Oyedeji, the Cypresus and T. Tribolata  species were found to be of medicinal value to the very same farmers as they can be used to protect the farmers produce livestock and grains against pest.

“While Zierone, a compound found in cyperus distans (slender cyperus) was found to be selling at $2 500 per litre, the South African species that has this compound in high concentration is being cut down and burnt to ashes. Clearly this shows that South African medicinal plants can create jobs through commercial cultivation of these plants and improve the storage processes of agricultural produce,” said Oyedeji.

In concluding, she said that during her research, she uncovered that the isolation of a triterpenoid and semi-synthesis afforded about 9 compounds. Three of these have been found to be effective in killing breast cancer cells.

“This is a fantastic discovery that I will continue to explore,” said Oyedeji.

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