Change the world


The addition of herbal teas to a healthy lifestyle could well add a few more good years to your life says Nelson Mandela University cellular biochemist, Professor Maryna van de Venter.

Professor van de Venter who has spent the past 20 years researching the benefits of the medicinal qualities found in plants, particularly when it comes to cancer and diabetes.

With more than 10 million cancer-related deaths in 2020 alone, and a massive increase in the prevalence of the lifestyle Type 2 diabetes world-wide and particularly in South Africa, there’s every reason to seek the health benefits of plants.

“What we have discovered from our research is that a single plant extract can have several benefits, whereas drugs often only target one aspect of a disease,” Prof Van de Venter explained during her inaugural lecture on Exploring plants as medicine: an in vitro approach at the University earlier this month.

But, Prof van de Venter, was quick to add, she is not advocating the use of herbal remedies as cancer treatments at all – whether in isolation or in a combination with cancer chemotherapy.

Rather, she explained, the aim of the ongoing research of the Medicinal Plants and Natural Products Research Group at the institution was to identify plants that produce compounds that may one day lead to the development of new anticancer chemotherapies.

This research has been greatly enhanced, in recent years, by the ImageXpress XLS High Content Analysis System - a powerful fluorescent microscope that enables researchers to clearly examine the effects, using dyes, of plant extracts on cells from a series of high-resolution images.

Jointly funded by the National Research Foundation and the University, the microscope’s ability to measure the bioactivity and toxicity of plant extracts using in vitro models, like cell cultures which are outside of the body, is a far cry from the research undertaken in vivo (using animals like rats) that Prof van de Venter had to endure during her early career years as a young research assistant in the 1990s.

Prof van de Venter said the best way to test the benefits of plants as medicine remained human clinical trials, but that these could only be performed if there was enough in vitro or in vivo evidence in terms of safety and efficacy.

This had, for example, been achieved with Rooibos. Human studies have been performed on small groups of individuals. These studies confirmed a reduction in oxidative stress.

Today, Rooibos was a firm favourite among South Africans and was enjoyed extensively around the globe for its health benefits.

Prof van de Venter recalled the early years of her research into cancer bush (Sutherlandia frutescens), alongside colleagues, such as Professor Saartjie Roux, before expanding her research to include wormwood (Artemisia afra), which is commonly known as umhlonyane (Xhosa, Zulu), or wildeals (Afrikaans), Anemone nemorosa, or wood anemone that grows in Romania, and Aspalathus linearis or Rooibos, which is popular in South Africa.

This expansion began soon after she did some anticancer screening of plant extracts for Shimoda Biotech in Plettenberg Bay and had met with traditional healers seeking assistance with traditional medicinal plants.

A quick literature search at the time suggested the only medicinal plant research conducted in South Africa had been ethnobotanical surveys, and antimicrobial and antioxidant activity testing.

“This left the door wide open for anticancer and antidiabetic activities.”

And so, from humble beginnings in 2000, Prof van de Venter and  many postgraduate students  and colleagues, have since developed a comprehensive in vitro drug screening platform (BioAssaix Screening Services, that covers not only anticancer and antidiabetic activities, but also anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and anti-ageing activities and some of the diabetic complications.

This drug screening platform service is internationally renowned and used for research around the globe.

With cancer being one of the leading causes of death worldwide, and Type 2 diabetes becoming increasingly prevalent, the research of Prof van de Venter and her team remains critical.

“We hope to identify plants that produce compounds that may one day lead to the development of new anticancer chemotherapies.”

According to Prof van de Venter Type 2 diabetes is, in many cases, preventable through lifestyle changes. 

“More than half of South Africans are overweight and 28% of them are obese due to a sedentary lifestyle, unhealth lifestyle and stress. We do not have control over risk factors like age and a family history, but we can adopt a healthy lifestyle and substantially lower the risk of developing diabetes.”

She said it was the same, in part, with cancer.

“About a third of cancer deaths are preventable because the cancer was caused by bad lifestyle choices.” (

Results of their ongoing work showed that there were health benefits to be had from these plants, often across many aspects of the illness.

“The nice things about plant extracts as opposed to a single chemical is that they may contain more than one compound that works at different antidiabetic targets to improve their overall effect.”

And so, while the benefits of a healthy diet was inclusive of fruit and vegetable, Prof van de Venter believes it could also include herbal teas and supplements.

The challenge came, however, in that herbal products were not yet standardised to ensure efficacy and safety.

“At least Rooibos has a proven safety record, so please combine your cup of tea with other healthy habits, and it may add a few healthy years to your life.”

Prof van de Venter (centre) with the Dean of Science, Prof Azwinndini Muronga and the DVC: Learning & Teaching, Prof Cheryl Foxcroft.

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