Clinical trials could start by the end of the year with three indigenous plants believed to have diabetes-treating properties, said the Medical Research Council (MRC) on Friday.
said MRC diabetes research head Dr Sonia Wolfe-Coote in Pretoria.
Tests on laboratory rats had yielded promising results. Existing medicines were too costly for most South Africans, Wolfe-Coote added.
About eight million South Africans were believed to be affected by type 2 diabetes and needed to use medicine every day of their lives. She declined to name the three plants being tested, but said they were found only in South Africa. The research started with diabetes patients at Eastern Cape clinics being questioned about the type of treatments prescribed to them by traditional healers, and whether these worked.
This was followed by tests of the plants' active ingredients on tissue cultures, and then on laboratory rats. The MRC's diabetes research group worked closely with the University of Port Elizabeth and the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) on the project.
Apart from the obvious benefits for those with diabetes, the development of an indigenous drug would boost job creation though commercial farms to cultivate the medicinal plants.
Research group scientist Johan Louw said an agreement had been struck with traditional healers and their communities for a 50/50 benefit-sharing scheme once the drug became commercially available.
Wolfe-Coote said diabetes was one of the most-challenging public health problems of the 21st century - particularly for the African continent. It was the fourth or fifth leading cause of death in most countries, and its spread was being fanned in the developing world by cultural and socio-economic changes. This included a more-fatty and unhealthy Western diet, and reduced physical activity.
By 2025, it was expected that 76% of those with diabetes would be in developing countries, said Wolfe-Coote.