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[DURBAN] Scientists in South Africa are investigating a traditional healer's claims to have created a cure for AIDS from a concoction of four plants. Laboratory tests show that one of the plants appears to have anti-retroviral properties, a microbiology conference heard.

Luke Mumba, director of the Southern African Network for Biosciences (SANBio) has confirmed that scientists at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Pretoria are working with the healer to further assess the mixture, a milky brown drink.

Mumba said: "We are not disclosing the name of the plant because of intellectual property issues. It's at a very exciting stage and a [human] clinical trial will be the next phase." He was speaking at last week's 6th annual Bio2Biz Conference in Durban (20–23 September).

The project is just one of SANBio's initiatives to encourage innovation in local science. It reflects the wealth of indigenous knowledge available in South Africa and the opportunities this knowledge might present to science.

Nceba Gqaleni, head of the traditional medicines programme at South Africa's University of KwaZulu-Natal, told the conference that after years of debate, Africa's traditional healers are being consulted in attempts to use their indigenous plant knowledge for commercial gain.

He said this new inclusion had "changed the language" of discussion, with healers feeling involved and financially rewarded rather than exploited.

Gqaleni urges traditional healers to share their indigenous knowledge in their native isiZulu to avoid the misunderstandings that often occur when they speak English.

Yonah Seleti, from South Africa's Department of Science and Technology, said at the conference that South Africa had some legislation that protected indigenous knowledge systems.

"At this stage we have a policy [created in 2005] that traditional healers were involved in drawing up."

A legal spokesman for the Department of Science and Technology says dedicated legislation covering all aspects of indigenous knowledge systems is still needed and that this is in the planning phase.

Anso Thom of news network Health-e told SciDev.Net: "While we need to encourage and support the scientific testing of remedies that have the potential to play a role in the treatment of HIV, we need to be extremely careful about making claims prematurely."

"Unless the remedies have undergone rigorous scientific testing which includes the results being published in peer reviewed scientific journals, they will always be viewed as potentially quack remedies cashing in on the desperation of sick and often poor people."