Natural products with medicinal value

Meet Dr Mariamawit Yonathan Yeshak, group leader of the pharmacognosy research group at Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry and Pharmacognosy at Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia.

Dr Yeshak is Vice Chair of the National Young Academy of Ethiopia and recently visited Sweden to take part in the second World Wide meeting of Young Academies held at the Royal Swedish Academy for Science in Stockholm.

She started her academic career as a Sida bilateral sandwich PhD student spending part of her program at the Biomedical Center at Uppsala University, Sweden and part at Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia. She finished her PhD in 2012, but already in 2011 ISP invited her to apply for a grant to start up a research group back in Ethiopia. From 2013 she is leading the group BaSIL, Bioactive Secondary metabolites for Improving Life, building on the competence acquired with Sida bilateral support.

The main focus of the group is pharmacognosy, which simplified is the study of natural products, which have medicinal value. In practice it means that the group is exploring plants in the Ethiopian flora used by traditional healers in the search for medicinally active plants. The group analyzes what chemicals the plats contains and tries to extract it. The long term aim and idea is to develop an active fraction/compound that could be employed in drug research, however this process could take several years. Dr Yeshak and her group are especially focusing on finding natural products with antimalarial properties, two research areas of importance to Ethiopia.

- In our country 80% of the population still uses traditional medicine, however the deep knowledge in the traditional medicine still remains largely untapped. Secondly, malaria is very present in Ethiopia, therefore to find any antimalarial drug would be of great value to the country. With the rich flora in Ethiopia we also have great potential for natural products research.

The ISP funds so far has mainly been used for equipping the laboratory with the essential instruments needed for analyzing natural products, for field trips collecting plats and for short term visits to collaborating partners in Sweden and elsewhere. Currently there are three senior researchers and three MSc students in the group. A PhD program in pharmacognosy is planned to start in the group in September 2016. Dr Yeshak is positive towards the program and the future in general and wishes to see an expansion of the group: 

- I want to the group to be larger in number, attract more students and more funds. I want the group to be more productive, more results oriented, and hope we will make a significant change to the research environment here. I also seek to adapt a more collaborative and less competitive research culture, an approach I was very impressed by in Sweden. 

December 2015