An affordable anti-inflammatory cream made from medicinal plants from South Africa
Sport offers numerous health benefits for both body and mind, from a stronger heart to reduced stress. However, it can also increase the risk of joint injuries and post-traumatic arthritis, a condition that causes stiffness and pain around injured joints. This is especially true for athletes, who subject their joints to much more wear and tear than most people.
Repairing bone and cartilage in joints after an injury has been a long-standing challenge in the field of regenerative medicine. Recent years have seen rapid advances in tissue engineering strategies, but these treatments require surgery, which brings its own set of risk and complications. Non-invasive treatment of post-traumatic arthritis remains the ultimate goal.
This challenge has long fascinated Professor Keolebogile Shirley Motaung, Director of Technology Transfer and Innovation at Durban University of Technology in South Africa. As a biomedical scientist, her research focuses on stem cells, tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. In 2007, while pursuing her doctorate in biomedical technology at the University of California, Davis, she began working with a group of proteins known as bone morphogenic proteins to achieve bone and cartilage regeneration. Bone morphogenic proteins offer promising opportunities for regenerative medicine, but they are very expensive – often prohibitively so for people in lower- and middle-income communities.
Financial barriers in healthcare led Prof Motaung to find natural and inexpensive alternative treatments for arthritis in plants. She knew that indigenous communities around the world have used medicinal plants to treat all kinds of illnesses, from common colds and menstrual cramps to tuberculosis and diabetes. She also knew that her home country, South Africa, is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, home to thousands of plant species found nowhere else on Earth. “South Africa is rich in native flora, but no one had previously done scientific research on the potential of these plants to treat bone and cartilage diseases,” explains Prof Motaung.
Her search led her to two native species: African teak, a tree of woodlands and savannahs, and the pineapple lily, a short, showy flower. Both plants contain chemicals that can activate body cells, enhance bone formation and heal wounds in vitro. When combined with stem cells, they can also help guide the development of new tissues, a process known as “scaffolding”.
In 2015, Prof Motaung founded Global Health Biotech Pty Ltd., a spin-off company from Durban University of Technology. “It’s great that researchers publish their work,” said Prof Motaung in a 2021 interview with WIPO, “but it's also important that they think about how their work can benefit the community and create jobs both for themselves and others.”
Motivated by this philosophy, she and her research group at Global Health Biotech began developing and manufacturing a plant-based anti-inflammatory cream called La-Africa Soother. Unlike other creams targeting muscle aches and joint pains, La-Africa Soother is unique in that it can also offer preventative care: by applying it before exercise, users can reduce the likelihood of pain. La-Africa Soother also functions as a restorative thanks to its ability – unique in the market – to promote the development of type II collagen, an essential component of the cartilage in joints.
Prof Motaung knew that intellectual property (IP) would be central to the success of Global Health Biotech. However, securing funding to cover patent fees proved a significant challenge. She therefore arranged a deal with Durban University of Technology in which the university would cover the patent fees and then license the IP to her and Global Health Biotech with royalties. “The fact that the university covered our patent fees, and that I have been able to license it at a much lower cost, has really assisted our business,” says Prof Motaung.
Other challenges included registering La-Africa Soother with the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority and receiving final approval to sell the product, both of which took a long time. Nevertheless, La-Africa Soother is now patented and available commercially in South Africa. Global Health Biotech has been registered as a trademark, which has helped build brand recognition and grow its customer base. To expand its product range, the company has also recently licensed technology from Stellenbosch University to develop a vegan protein shake, which can reduce inflammation.
In light of her experience of establishing a company and navigating South Africa’s IP system, and driven by her conviction that scientific research should be used to benefit people, Prof Motaung now trains students not just to conduct research but to generate business ideas and create job opportunities. IP is central to this diversified education, and Prof Motaung is currently working to include IP training in the curricula for the university’s science degrees. In this way, she hopes to cultivate young innovators and entrepreneurs and provide them with opportunities to commercialize their innovations.
Prof Motaung also wants to see a broader shift in university attitudes to IP. “The IP portfolios of most major research universities are bursting with wonderful products, yet the majority of these inventions go nowhere because there are no qualified professionals to take them to market,” she explains. “So it’s not enough to simply acquire patents. Universities need to actively license those patented technologies and create opportunities for research students to access them, take them to the market, and ensure that research translates into products and services that benefit society and contribute to the national economy.”
Even with a greater understanding of IP, hurdles remain for innovators like Prof Motaung. Despite efforts to ensure gender equality in science, fewer than one third of researchers in science, technology, engineering, and math in Africa are women, and reports of gender discrimination in these sectors are still common. One of the barriers confronting female scientists is a perceived lack of credibility, something which Prof Motaung has experienced throughout her career. “It’s not easy to be a black female entrepreneur,” she admits. “People don't believe in you. You always have to prove yourself and prove that your product works. As a woman in science and technology you have to work twice or even three times as much as men.”
Prof Motaung believes that education and providing more platforms for women to showcase their research can help achieve a more inclusive society. In the meantime, however, “the importance of determination can’t be overstated” for female entrepreneurs. “Perseverance and passion are critical,” she insists.
Prof Motaung’s own determination drives her to continue her work with Global Health Biotech. “My goal is for our products to be available globally and, in particular, to lower- and middle-income communities,” she states. Achieving this ambition will require a continued prioritisation of IP, as Prof Motaung well knows: “from the outset, it was clear that IP would be central to Global Health Biotech’s future.”