Associate Director, Public Relations and Communications
Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development
ATLANTA – For centuries, practitioners of traditional African medicine have used native plants to treat illnesses. Even today, many in Africa receive traditional, plant-centered treatments as part of their care. While the power of these native plants may be well known to those who use them, experts in chemistry are still working to identify and explore their healing compounds in hopes of taking their potential even further.
Paulos Yohannes, professor of Chemistry and associate dean for STEM/research at Georgia State University’s Perimeter College is tackling that work head on. With the support of a recently-won Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship, Yohannes will be collaborating with fellow faculty at Georgia State and with Addis Ababa University to help identify and analyze some of Ethiopia’s healing plants.
Tim Denning, vice president of Research and Economic Development, sat down with Yohannes to talk about the potential impact of this valuable research, and how the power of collaboration was crucial to making it happen.
Denning: First, I just wanted to say congratulations to you. What a wonderful honor to receive the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship. I know it’s a first for the university.
Yohannes: Thank you so much.
You grew up in Ethiopia, correct? Tell me about the path that brought you to Georgia State.
Yes, I studied and finished my undergrad in Ethiopia, and then went to University of Kansas to do my graduate work. I was part of the faculty when Perimeter College became part of Georgia State, so I’ve been teaching and doing research here in Atlanta for a while.
And what led to your interest in medicinal plants?
When I was at university in Africa, I did my undergraduate in pharmacy, and I worked with medicinal plants that are endemic to Ethiopia. Growing up there, I saw people using these plants in a way that’s very different from the Western type of medicine. It’s an African type of medicine, traditional medicine, so the doctor and the pharmacist were the same person. They would look at whatever was wrong with the patient, decide what medicine they needed, and then they would prepare it and formulate it. They know which plants to use, so they would harvest them and extract the ingredients.
So, they’d need to know everything from the type of plants to where to find them to how to prepare them in the correct way to get the desired effect?
Right. For example, I worked with a plant that people have used for many years on tapeworm. It does cure people, but sometimes it can also cause an overdose. And that can happen for many reasons, including not knowing the harvest time. It may be that the active ingredient is high in spring and lower in the fall, so the dose can depend on when you harvested.
This sounds like expertise that comes with having had a lot of practice with this kind of medicine.
Yes, and the doctors can be very secretive. As they get older, they may pass their knowledge on only to their favorite son or daughter. But fortunately, Addis Ababa University of Ethiopia received a grant and was able to hire these traditional medical practitioners to come in and talk about these plants and how they are used. It took about 10 years to classify and identify the medicinal plants in all regions of Ethiopia, and they have specimens stored in the university’s herbarium. Over the years, chemists there worked on many of these plants in identifying and characterizing the active ingredients. When I was there as an undergraduate and master’s degree student, I was in the lab where I could look at the pharmaceutical side.
What made you want to bring this specific type of research to Georgia State?
There are a lot of researchers in Africa that have extracted and identified the active ingredients of these plants, but they don’t have access to the most modern tools. They don’t have high-field NMR, for example, or the different type of techniques that you use with a mass spectrometer to identify the active ingredients in these natural products. Georgia State University has a lot of the instruments to do this work. Also, when I’ve spoken with colleagues and leadership here about this research, I was just amazed at how resourceful and helpful they are.
Who did you work with here to make this happen?
As I was thinking about the fellowship, I reached out to my dean at Perimeter, Cynthia Lester, to support me in my application and the project. I also talked about this project with some Distinguished and Regents’ Professors at GSU Atlanta, including Binghe Wang, Didier Merlin, Giovanni Gadda and Cynthia Nau Cornelissen, as well as the associate dean for the College of Arts & Sciences, Donald Hamelberg, and they are all willing to support this endeavor. I hope in the future this will be a good collaboration with Addis Ababa University as well, and it will be sustainable.
This research is such a strong example of collaboration, not only among disciplines like chemistry, biology and medicine, but also between Perimeter and the Atlanta Campus downtown, not to mention colleagues across the ocean in Ethiopia. I know it takes somebody to spearhead the effort, so that’s a testament to you bringing all of this together.
Thank you. Collaboration is good!
Now that you have this fellowship in place and these connections made, what impact are you hoping this work will have? Not only for you and your colleagues here at Georgia State and in Ethiopia, but also beyond that?
People have been working in Ethiopia for many years on these natural products, but the lack of access to instrumentation has slowed down their ability to publish. I think they will benefit greatly from collaborating with us so they can publish more and potentially get more recognition and respect as well as funding.
On this end, I am working with faculty at Addis Ababa University to create a graduate chemistry course on Metals in Medicine, so I know I can have an impact in that way and bring that knowledge and experience back here. Beyond that, someone like Dr. Merlin for example, who is interested in natural products, may be more interested in doing more and different research. And Dr. Wang, as a medicinal chemist, may be interested in the synthesis of this, what we identify as active ingredients, and even pushing it further to a pharmaceutical product. So, something is going to come out of this. It has a lot of potential for impact.
Well, it has been wonderful talking through this, and thanks so much for sharing the background and the story that’s led you to today. I certainly wish you the best success with the project.
Thank you so much for your support.
Paulos Yohannes, Ph.D.
Professor of Chemistry
Paulos Yohannes is a chemistry professor and the associate dean of STEM/Research at Georgia State’s Perimeter College. His research experiences include the identification and characterization of medicinal plants, metal ion mediate hydrolysis of nucleotides, and interaction of anticancer drugs with DNA and protein pharmaceutics.