Professor Neil Koorbanally.

Natural Products for Pharmaceutical Solutions – Thrust of Inaugural Lecture

‘The title of professor is not one that I take lightly – it is a title I take to train our future leaders of South Africa, Africa and the world.’

These sentiments were expressed by Professor Neil Koorbanally of UKZN’s School of Chemistry and Physics during his inaugural lecture in the Senate Chamber on the Westville campus.

An Organic Chemist, Koorbanally’s interests include natural products chemistry and the discovery of lead compounds from plant sources used in traditional medicine, and in synthetic organic chemistry specialising in the synthesis of heterocyclic molecules.

‘Healthcare in South Africa is expensive and, in many cases, inaccessible to those who cannot afford it,’ said Koorbanally. ‘Problems such as antibacterial resistance and the rising increase in cancer globally, highlight the need for the development of new pharmaceuticals with increased bioactivity or fewer side-effects than known drugs on the market. There is a need for South Africa as a nation to make its own pharmaceuticals. We have our own strengths, namely, the science behind traditional medicine.’

Koorbanally discussed two approaches that have been used for the discovery of new leads – looking at plant metabolites, and synthesising organic molecules from basic starting materials.

‘Plants biosynthesise secondary metabolites from simple chemical building blocks that they use for defence and to fight off fungal and bacterial infections,’ he explained. ‘My research group, which currently comprises 16 students at postdoctoral, doctoral and masters level, taps into this vast reservoir of natural products and finds applications for them as pharmaceuticals. We also mimic this synthetically, by using small organic building blocks, making larger organic molecules, whose scaffolds exist in nature with known bioactivity.’

Over the years, Koorbanally and his students have isolated and synthesised a library of over 500 molecules in an attempt to identify suitable candidates in the pursuit of discovering better and more effective drugs. They have discovered compounds with antibacterial activity, sickle cell anaemia, antioxidant properties, anti-inflammatory activity, antimalarial activity and menopausal disorder activity. Under his leadership, Koorbanally’s research group has been involved in the synthesis of quinolines, quinoxalines, benzimidazoles, chalcones, flavonoids and beta lactams, with activity against tuberculosis, and certain types of cancers and bacteria.

Dean and Head of the School of Chemistry and Physics, Professor Ross Robinson, acknowledged Koorbanally’s outstanding record in terms of graduating masters and doctoral students. To date he has graduated 25 doctoral and 20 masters students and published widely with over 125 publications and one patent on bioactive compounds against sickle cell anaemia.

Koorbanally, who during the course of his lecture traced an academic journey launched from humble beginnings, holds a PhD from the former University of Natal (2001) and a Master’s cum laude degree (1998) in Organic Chemistry. He was a Colenso scholar at St John’s College in Cambridge in the United Kingdom in 2005, where he worked on the biosynthetic pathways to the antibiotics butirosin and neomycin under the late Dr Joe Spencer.

Koorbanally is a member of several academic societies such as the Phytochemical Society of Europe, the American Chemical Society and the South African Chemical Institute. He also sits on the editorial board of Natural Products Communications and has served in a number of administrative positions at the University, including as Director of the Science Access Programme, which he described as ‘one of the best things I ever did.’ He is currently Academic Leader of Research in the School of Chemistry and Physics.

At the end of a very personal and heartfelt address, Koorbanally acknowledged the people who had supported him on his journey, including his teachers and professors, especially Professor Dulcie Mulholland, who he said was “pivotal to his career”; the technical and administrative staff in the School of Chemistry and Physics as well as his colleagues and research collaborators; and most importantly ‘two groups of special people, namely, my family, and my students.’

In closure, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor for the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science Professor Albert Modi said: ‘Professor Koorbanally, the results of your research and your future research promise to solve some of the problems of the world.’

Words: Sally Frost

Photograph: Albert Hirasen