Indigenous Knowledge Systems: briefing

Science and Technology

14 June 2005
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Meeting report


14 June 2005

Chairperson: Mr E Ngcobo (ANC)

Documents handed out
Medical Research Council PowerPoint presentation on Indigenous Knowledge Systems

The Medical Research Council's (MRC) Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) programme briefed the Committee on indigenous technologies. The presentation outlined their vision and mission, and research development of traditional medicines. Examples were given of African initiatives regarding HIV/AIDS, cancer, Tuberculosis (TB) and malaria. The programme’s goal was to establish platforms that would allow for better, more productive research. Through co-ordinating development and increasing institutional assistance, the MRC hoped to become a "centre of excellence" in IKS.

The Committee asked questions regarding scepticism towards alternative medicines, intellectual property rights, and the new advancements.

Committee administrative issues were first discussed. Members adopted the Committee Clerk’s minutes of 31 May 2005 and 7 June 2005. The Committee’s second quarter programme was also adopted.

Medical Research Council briefing
Dr Motlalepula Matsabisa (IKS Health Director) briefed the Committee on indigenous technologies. The presentation outlined their vision and mission, and the research development in traditional medicine. The goal of IKS was to achieve and competitively use South Africa’s over 20 000 indigenous plants to create sustainable livelihoods and employment. Through creating a system of exports, developing drugs, and encouraging doctors to work on direct indigenous knowledge systems, the programme hoped to become a "center of excellence".

An outline was given regarding the recognition that the programme had received. Dr Matsabisa described the African initiatives that had been launched in West and East Africa. Currently, IKS was working to develop technologies tackling HIV/AIDS, TB, malaria, cancer and diabetes. Efforts had been co-ordinated with traditional healers and local communities. Clinical and pre-clinical research were being done to examine the safety of traditional medicines. Developments also had been made that allowed traditional methods to work in synergy with other medicines, such as with ARVs in HIV/AIDS. IKS progress on malaria and diabetes were also discussed. The programme also wanted to create strategic business units for indigenous business systems that could benefit communities. Education initiatives that created resource centers and linked up networks between traditional healer programs and school research were also noted. Through further development of IKS, the programme hoped to alleviate poverty, provide employment and create sustainable development products.

Mr A Mlangeni (ANC) said that if medicines could not aid or improve lives, there was no purpose. Doctors unfortunately tended to concentrate work on specific diseases, such as HIV and cancer, and less on non-fatal ailments.

Dr Matsabisa acknowledged that the Medical Research Council did not do much research on other diseases, as their mandate was to focus on diseases like diabetes, HIV/AIDS and malaria.

Mr R van den Heever (ANC) noted that the proposal of natural alternatives to antiretroviral HIV drugs was a publicly contested issue. He asked more on the addition of natural supplements to existing antiretrovirals.

Dr Matsabisa stated that clinical trials had proved that certain drugs worked conclusively. The largest problem with IKS was market share. He stressed the importance of doing the best research possible and more public education. The registration of products would make them accessible to the public and allow for greater acceptance. Their prime focus was to finish clinical trials.

Professor I Mohamed (ANC) asked about the intellectual property rights for these drugs. Dr Matsabisa he would need to research this answer further.

Professor Mohammed did not understand why talks about drug manufacturing required the use of a Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) company.

Dr Matsabisa stated that BEE was part of an effort to maintain the intellectual property in the country. Most pharmaceuticals did not do research and development in South Africa, so the argument was to provide incentives for local research and development.

Mr S Nxumalo (ANC) asked about a meeting between the IKS programme and a township community in Zululand, and the possibilities for partnership.

Dr Matsabisa said there was a KwaZulu-Natal doctor currently working on HIV/AIDS with whom IKS was currently collaborating. There was a good relationship with the community. IKS was aware of traditional healers’ proximities to research facilities, and the location of schools.

The Chairperson asked for more clarification on advocacy. Dr Matsabisa noted that funding was an issue but the IKS office was working to promote awareness of their research on the website.

The Chairperson noted that nothing had been said regarding ‘izikomo’, disempowerment and the traditional approach of predicting symptoms.

Dr Matsabisa replied that IKS focused on the science of traditional healing and separated traditional practice from the products. The MRC was not involved in other sciences.

The Chairperson enquired about the length of time for clinical trials. The presentation had stated that drugs would be given for three months. This seemed like a short time period to view their long-term effects.

Dr Matsabisa responded that clinical trials were conducted in three stages: safety, effectiveness and quality control. The goal was to make medicines accessible and available. There was an awareness of the responsibility of the Medicines Control Council (MCC) and of products in the larger market. The goal was not to interfere with other drugs. If a traditional healer wanted to make drugs available, these would need to be tested and marketed with confidence.

Tests were conducted for three months. They then underwent ‘phase one trials’ which analysed safety for five weeks. The doses were high, allowing for a toxicology analysis to ensure safety. By using over the recommended doses, the safety study aimed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the drugs were safe. For HIV/AIDS drugs to prove effectiveness, six months of testing were conducted with follow-ups after nine and 12 months.

The Chairperson had heard an address by the MRC on HIV/AIDS drug safety. It had reported that the minimum time needed to test a drug safely was seven years, though average testing periods were 12-15 years.

Dr Matsabisa stated that there were two systems of drug development. The one being referred to involved single molecules. Those were new drug developments. IKS worked with natural extracts that had been used for a while to verify results and allay public fears. The difference in testing periods was because that presentation had been about single molecules, not plant extracts.

The Chairperson requested more information regarding malaria research and new treatments. Dr Matsabisa noted that the Global Fund against HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria had publicised some breakthroughs in the treatment of malaria. IKS had been doing research independently from the Global Fund partners. If they were to develop new drugs from molecular discoveries, this would take longer due to the animal testing required to verify safety. This was very expensive. It would be problematic if IKS wanted to address affordability. If 15-20 years were spent testing drugs, that would require considerable money. As a result, IKS was exploring alternatives, such as plant extracts, to get the same effect as other drugs. In molecular research, by the time the drugs reached the market, it was possibility that the mosquito parasite would have become immune. In addition, who would be able to afford the medications? As malaria affected the poor, they were researching innovations in traditional medicines.

The Chairperson asked more about the study of traditional healers in Khayelitsha. Dr Matsabisa replied that they were currently conducting a four-year study observing a traditional healer from Langa. They were also working in Khayelitsha. Currently the project was still concentrated on laboratory work, and was in the preliminary stages.

He added that research had been done on diabetes in the house laboratory, that had proven medicinal plants were better than some of the market drugs. For instance, they had done research on AIDS-related diarrhea. When they compared results obtained from traditional plants with Imodium, the currently most widely used anti-diarrhea drug, the plant fibres were found to be more effective.

Mr Mlangeni asked was done with the plant fibres. Dr Matsabisa stated that fibers were milled to create a white powder that could be dissolved in water. The benefit of this treatment was it did not create constipation, unlike Imodium. With irritable bowel syndrome patients, constipation following diarrhea was a vicious cycle.

The Chairperson inquired about the source of the statistics regarding the billions made from overseas companies using indigenous technologies. He asked because these statistics coincided similar information given by a professor in Namibia. Dr Matsabisa stated that he would provide more information from the Global Fund.

The Chairperson then asked for clarification regarding IKS and international commitments. Dr Mogege Mosimege (Science Department IKS Manager) stated that the Department of Trade and Industry was reviewing patent legislation and working on amendments. Since 2001, a World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) commission into Intellectual Property Rights and genetic resources, traditional knowledge and folklore, had been discussing issues related to indigenous knowledge. An eighth session had been held last week in Geneva, but there was still no agreement on the international instrument legally binding all members of the WIPO states.

The meeting was adjourned.


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