Healing plants from the Congo
Kalulu Taba has a dream: to establish a science academy in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and to carry out world-class research that can bring better health conditions to the people of his country.
Taba, an organic chemist, was elected to TWAS in 2015 and is currently the only TWAS Fellow in his country. He studies chemical compounds extracted from indigenous plants to kill fecal bacteria that contaminate drinkable water.
"Millions of adults and children die every year in developing countries because they drink polluted water," explains the scientist. Approaches such as boiling water or using chlorine, ultraviolet rays or ozone are not sustainable solutions. Either they require energy from wood and damage the environment, or they are too expensive for the local populations. "That's why we exploit indigenous knowledge to find suitable plants, whose extracts we test for their ability to kill bacteria after light-activation."
Taba is working on other projects too. He is trying to find active compounds to eliminate the malaria parasite from blood, and to exploit non-edible, abundant plants to produce biofuel.
Kalulu Taba is a professor of organic chemistry at the University of Kinshasa, located in the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). He obtained his PhD at Northwestern University (1979) near Chicago (USA), and has since built broad experience at high-level research institutions: the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research in Germany, the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in France, the Weitzmann Institute in Israel and the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Belgium.
Late in the 1980s he returned to his home country to serve his community. "My country lags behind in science and technology, which are primordial conditions to alleviate poverty and misery," he explains. "I decided to come back home to take part in strengthening scientific capacities by promoting indigenous expertise and building a scientific community able to negotiate with political and social authorities."
Those were the years when Mobutu Sese Seko ruled a military dictator, building a cult of personality while violating the most basic human rights.
"Those early years were problematic, as we had little money for science," Taba explains. "After the end of Mobutu's regime (in September 1997) we became more optimistic for things to change."
While political stability improved, funding has long been insufficient. Today, he needs about USD15,000 per year to run his laboratory, purchase chemicals and guarantee a smooth workflow, and that tight budget has forced him to compensate with efficiency and creativity.
"We did not – we still don't – have enough money, and the government doesn't support science," he says. "That's why I dedicated myself to establish networks of scientists, putting them together. We established good collaborations with other groups, both in Botswana and Belgium. And we did a lot of good research."
Taba's election is part of an initiative led by TWAS President Bai Chunli, who realized the importance of expanding TWAS's membership to countries with few or no TWAS Fellows. Currently, there are 22 nations worldwide with only one TWAS Fellow and more with no fellow at all. Sixteen of them, including DRC, are developing countries.
Professor Keto Mshigeni, a 1987 TWAS Fellow and the immediate past vice president of TWAS representing the sub-Saharan Africa Region, was among the proponents of Taba's election to the Academy.
"Kalulu Taba is a highly accomplished, broad-minded, world-class scientist in the chemical sciences, actively engaged in sensitizing fellow scientists in his country," Mshigeni says. "It was through an accident of history that, one day, Professor Taba's path and mine coincided at Johannesburg International Airport, an opportunity that enabled me know more about him, and to identify him as a TWAS star to illuminate the DRC and to mentor many others."
At the Weitzmann Institute, Taba had specialized in plant extracts containing hypericine – derived from the herb Hypericum perforatum, known as St. John’s wort – that was tested as an anti-HIV drug. In parallel, he had studied other plant-derived chemical compounds able to kill bacteria, viruses and parasites.
When he returned to DRC in 1987, he merged his experiences across different fields, expanding his interests to cover biological, medical and environmental issues. He applied his skills to study traditional remedies used by local practitioners, with the aim of translating oral medical traditions into the production of drugs proven to be effective.
In rural areas of the DRC, there are still herbalists and practitioners who treat patients with experimental remedies and approaches that were never tested scientifically. "In Congo, more than 80% of people use plants to cure diseases," Taba says. "They are very poor, and cannot afford conventional, expensive medical treatments."
Taba and his collaborators, a group of about 15 PhD, masters and undergraduate students, proceed step by step. "First we take plants used by traditional pharmacopoeia, and soak them into water to see if they kill microbes," he says. "Then we further analyze them trying to spot promising active principles."
They also exploit photosensitization, a reaction that is triggered by sunlight. "Some plants contain molecules called photosensitizers," he explains. "They absorb sunlight undergoing a chemical reaction that would not occur in the absence of light. This reaction generates a singlet oxygen, a high-energy, bactericidal form of oxygen able to get rid of bacterial contamination."
They are focusing, for example, on Aframomum alboviolaceum, an herbaceous perennial plant taken from the local tradition, which grows around Mont Ngafula, a municipality in the Lukunga district of Kinshasa where water pollution represents a serious problem.
Taba was the first in his country to discover and apply in a scientific way this water purification method. For this discovery he received a TWAS research grant in 1994. The award of USD10,000 has been a precious resource not only to his lab, but also to the whole department of chemistry at the University of Kinshasa.
And his election to TWAS, in 2015, followed this span of productive research and discovery. His nomination stems from the important discoveries he made in organic chemistry, from studying anti-malarial plants and plants used in solar water disinfection and in the production of biofuel from local seeds. He has also invested much energy in the dissemination of sciences in the country.
TWAS's membership, Taba says, "has encouraged me to be more active. I know I can do more for science in Congo." Though Taba is the only TWAS scientists currently living in DRC, he is the second to be elected to TWAS. Felix Malu Wa Kalenga, the late founding Fellow of TWAS who served as a professor of applied sciences at the University of Kinshasa, was the first.
"You have to have confidence in yourself to continue this work," Taba says, "as the government provides little or no support to science, not only financially but also morally, giving no recognition, no prize or awards for the work scientists do."
His TWAS affiliation has also prompted him to offer advice to the Congolese government. In years past his voice might be ignored, but the DRC has recently established the Congolese Association for the Advancement of Science. Taba sits on its board and is an active force behind the organization of seminars, meetings and scientific events.
What's more, he is directly involved in the process of setting up the Congolese Academy of Science. "I hope that by the end of the year we will have it," he says. "Now we are taking inspiration from what others have done, for example in Senegal, and we are adjusting others' experience to our reality."
To be a TWAS Fellow, Taba admits, is a great honour and it confers confidence and authority in the difficult process of disseminating science and technology in the country. In this case, what matters more than money is believing in a dream and sharing it with others.