"Doctors at the local hospitals heard about it too. They said that these people were living as much as ten years longer than expected," Omolo says, adding, "I was the only one in my family who didn't believe in all the traditional cures." When he was growing up in Tanzania, he preferred Western medical clinics to African traditional healers. "I guess I wanted proof," he says.
Now this young African organic chemist is looking for that proof as he conducts research for his PhD on plants used by Tanzanian traditional healers to treat HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Tanzanian doctors and scientists have joined forces with Dutch and Indian research organizations to investigate the effect of the plants on HIV. Justin Omolo’s PhD study in South Africa is part of this international effort.
"In order to do my research, I prepare the plants the way the traditional healers do, boiling the stems, bark, leaves and tubers," he says.
His studies have found chemical compounds in the plants that act against the HIV virus, which targets the T4 cells that are vital to the body's immune system.
The hope is that a drug made from these plants can stop HIV from binding with the T4 cells, so they can keep on doing their job of fighting infections.
The plan is to create a chemical copy of the plants, because otherwise it would take a ton of plant material to produce just a few milligrams of the active ingredient. It will also leave the plants in the wild untouched for the traditional healers to use.
The names of these plants aren’t being publicly revealed because Justin Omolo's efforts to identify and copy the anti-HIV compounds could eventually lead to the patenting of an anti-HIV drug.