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Meeting of traditional healers commenting their medicinal plants and their uses (© ULiège).
In tandem with Hanoi University, Prof. Muller (ULiège) has scientifically examined the ancient knowledge on medicinal plants in Vietnam. Upshot: several extracts turn out to have clear anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer and anti-fungal properties.
In northern Vietnam, traditional medicine is still very popular. Healers, mostly women, pick plants that occur naturally in that region and that are used to cure numerous ailments. Prof. Marc Muller, a biologist at ULiège, was of the opinion that this ancient knowledge could be put to better use.
Can't those medicinal plants form the basis for new medicines? And isn't it helpful to get to know those plants better anyway? After all, some can also be toxic. Not everything that comes from nature is healthy. Just think of the many extremely poisonous mushrooms.
Through ARES - the umbrella organisation of French-speaking universities that coordinates academic development cooperation, financed by our SPF - he was able to secure funds to team up with Hanoi University. Essential to the success of the project was the coming together of diverse disciplines, something that was quite innovative in Vietnam.
Prof. Muller set to work with a task force of anthropologists, botanists, biochemists, chemists, pharmacologists and cellular biologists. The anthropologists talked to healers in the field to find out which plant species they use for which ailments. That yielded a list of about 20 species for further analysis.
The plant extracts were subjected to a battery of tests. Right away, all those techniques could be introduced in Hanoi. Do the extracts have an effect on the immune system? Do they inhibit the growth of cancer cells? Do biochemical tests show that they have antioxidant properties?
Prof. Muller himself specialises in zebrafish as test models. These little fish, which often swim around in aquariums, are ideal for testing the effects of plant extracts and potential medicines. For this purpose, larvae are used that are under 5 days old and that are not yet considered fully-fledged animals. It is the simplest system for measuring effects on an animal.
On the Belgian team, Prof. Muller also brought together various disciplines. For example, Prof. Pierre Duez (UMons) took care of the chemical analysis of the extracts; Prof. Patrick Kestemont (UNamur) used zebrafish to measure toxicity on embryos and finally, the antioxidant properties were verified by Prof. Jacques Dommes (ULiège).
Anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer and anti-fungal
And then the key question: do the scientific analyses back up the plants' healing power? The answer is surprisingly positive. Among the extracts, clear anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties were indeed observed. One extract could effectively inhibit the growth of fungi. In fact, the teams even found properties that traditional healers did not ascribe to it. Then again, there were also plants that are best avoided by pregnant women.
Three female doctoral students dedicated themselves fully to the research, half of it in Belgium, the other half in Vietnam. They managed to master the various techniques in the process. Thus, Hanoi University can now autonomously apply the zebrafish model.
All three students defended their doctorates at ULiège, UMons and UNamur respectively, the latter as recently as early 2023. They can now join the task force in Hanoi without any restrictions. Moreover, the project generated about ten articles in international scientific journals.
Coordination meeting in Hanoi. On the far left, Prof Marc Muller (© ULiège).
After 5 years, the project ended in 2022. But Prof. Muller is plotting a sequel. Hanoi University is also eager to stay on board. How can the medicinal plants industry be improved? How can Vietnam have a firmer foothold in the medicinal herb market, especially given the competition from China? How can the task force be expanded?
Even though it is as yet unclear whether Prof. Muller can secure funds for this, he has surely laid a solid foundation for a scientific approach to the ancient knowledge of medicinal plants in Vietnam. A clear contribution to SDG3, health and well-being.