Could a cure for Alzheimers be growing in this biotechnologist’s backyard

Over 2 million dementia sufferers in sub-Saharan Africa are waiting for a cure or a treatment that does better than just slowing their deterioration. A treatment they and their families can afford and trust.

Fast-forward two decades into the future, to 2039, when news might break that an indigenous Mauritian herb has been scientifically proven to treat Alzheimer’s disease. Biologists and chemists had screened the wealth of biodiversity on the island using smart technologies and expertise from many other fields technologies, and testing revealed a single herb containing the right compound to combat dementia. Today, Dr Devina Lobine is investigating herbal compounds as therapeutics for Alzheimer’s disease at the University of Mauritius. Like all members of Future Africa, she’s dreaming big to solve some of the continent’s most complex challenges: she wants to work with pharmacologists, clinicians, AI experts and traditional healers to ease the burden of dementia within 20 years.

Incredibly, the needle-in-a-haystack search for therapeutic molecules in indigenous plants is not the biggest challenge for an African scientist like herself, says Lobine. A lack of funding and corruption at all levels mean that the facilities, resources and infrastructure needed for such high-level scientific research are often not available. “The way out is that we have to collaborate with different institutes in Africa and other regions such as Europe and the USA,” she says. Working with international experts in a field like artificial intelligence (AI), for instance, could save a lot of time and money. “For the discovery process, we can apply AI to reduce the amount of time spent screening, and we would scale down the amount of plant samples that we need to do the screen.”

Lobine is already working with different groups in Africa and in the UK to improve the discovery process; to improve the science required to find a compound or molecule effective against Alzheimer's disease. 

She sees Future Africa as an enabling platform that will enhance these collaborations, grow her network and build capacity for her dream. “I have been working in this space for over three years now,” she says, “but now as part of Future Africa I see myself as a different person with a new perception. “Now I have a vision of making things happen in Africa; I feel motivated to work on many different projects. We all know that diseases are a major problem in Africa, both infectious and non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes, dementia and cardiovascular diseases. We also know that Africa possesses a very rich biodiversity, and this biodiversity is a reservoir of active compounds that can be developed into medicine and remedies.” 

The University of Pretoria itself, home to Future Africa, also recognises that Africa need not always rely on multi-million dollar pharmaceutical companies or first-world research institutions. In the case of malaria, for instance, ongoing work at the University of Pretoria’s Institute for Sustainable Malaria Control (UP ISMC) points to promising therapeutic compounds from the indigenous African wormwood plant.

Imagine this headline in future: “3.5 million dementia patients in sub-Saharan Africa accessed ‘miracle’ Mauritian herb cure in 2039”. What’s your #ImagineFutureAfrica headline?