FRANCA ALARIBE AND KELEBONGILE
MOTAUNG – The Conversation
Exciting project brings together medicinal plants, tissue science
There’s been a rise in recent years of biomedical engineering techniques that can restore lost tissue and bone. If you’ve been in a car crash, for instance, there are ways to restore or repair the lost body part or damaged tissues. Sometimes patients will undergo surgical reconstruction; sometimes they’ll be fitted with medical devices such as plates in their knees or hips. But these approaches have limitations. One is that a steel plate can’t really mimic the functions of damaged tissues or lost bones, so you can lose mobility and flexibility. Another is that these techniques often involve multiple painful operations and long hospital stays. That not only costs the individual patient a lot of time and money; it also places a burden on a country’s health care system and its economy.
There is an alternative: tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. This process started about three decades ago, and often builds on existing findings to test new approaches. It aims to reactivate biological processes to form products that can help with bone regeneration and tissue loss caused by trauma.
We are among the researchers working in this area. We think that medicinal plants may hold at least some of the answers to the limitations outlined above. We’ve studied two plants commonly used by South African traditional healers and herbalists to treat bone fractures and ease pain caused by osteoarthritis. Our studies have yielded positive results in the laboratory. This suggests that compounds drawn from these medicinal plants could offer a valuable way to support bone regeneration and tissue loss in people who’ve suffered trauma. Tissue engineering and regenerative medicine is based on three key requirements working together: signals from body tissues and organs.
The way forward with medicinal plants
These are exciting findings, because they suggest that incorporating medicinal plants with the relevant properties into biomedical engineering could be a good way to address the limitations of current approaches. First, using medicinal plants could reduce the cost of treatment because it is economical and easily accessible. Secondly, it could ensure that patients don’t have to spend as long in hospital after a procedure due to its speeding up of bone formation and cell activation and there’s an added benefit to this line of inquiry: an economic boom for South Africa. The value of biomedical scaffolding is predicted to reach $1.5 billion by 2024. If some of South Africa’s medicinal plants are found to support bone and tissue engineering and regeneration techniques, the country could corner at least part of the global bio-material market.