Letters: Possibilities exaggerated

06 October 2003
We are writing to bring some perspective to the cover article in the last edition of Monday Paper (September 29 - October 5, 2003, Volume 22#28) and to express our dismay and concern at the lack of journalistic judgement in giving the story the prominence it was accorded.

The article was based on a presentation given by our research student Kapinga Bamuamba at the weekly departmental seminar in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology on Tuesday, September 23, to which the Monday Paper was invited by Mr Bamuamba himself without our knowledge. In this seminar he enthusiastically described his investigations into the anti-mycobacterial activity associated with several indigenous plants collected in the Western Cape, and the potential the active agents may have in treating infections caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis (the causative agent of TB).

We, as supervisors of his project, were not consulted at any stage about publicising the research in this way, and feel some discomfort at the impressions created. These include (a) that a breakthrough has been achieved that will bring "hope" and imminent "relief" to TB sufferers, and (b) that the research idea - that medicinal plants in the Cape Floristic Region may be repositories of the next generation of pharmaceutical products - is novel and hitherto unexplored territory. These impressions are exaggerated and misleading.

We prefer to be far more modest about our research discoveries. While we believe that we have some very interesting results and that there are some novel aspects to our approach, it must be borne in mind that we are building on a long tradition of this kind of investigation. This project is just one small part of a research effort being undertaken by numerous research groups around the world in both academia and industry in which plants are being screened for activity against a range of disease-causing organisms. Within the University of Cape Town there are several groups conducting research into M. tuberculosis, including a variety of approaches to finding alternative drugs to treat TB and ways to maximize the effectiveness of existing drug therapies. It is premature to afford our work front-page prominence, given the very preliminary nature of our findings so far and the possibility for their importance to be greatly exaggerated.

As was pointed out in the article, but possibly missed in the overall hype with which it was conveyed, there is a long way to go. Our active compounds could at best be classified as "potential leads" in the search for alternative drug therapies for TB. As scientists we have a responsibility to exercise extreme caution in what we claim from our discoveries, not the least in areas relating to the health and well being of people.

The Monday Paper must also share in this responsibilty.

Recent public debate and pronouncements in South Africa in relation to therapies for the treatment of HIV/AIDS have been painful and damaging, in part due to the disregard for scientific accuracy, honesty and due process. We cannot afford to mislead the many who are suffering from diseases like TB, even though we feel the urgency to find new ways to help alleviate that suffering.

Dr David Gammon (Department of Chemistry)
Dr Paul Meyers (Department of Molecular and Cell Biology)


Skye Grove, Manager: Communication and Marketing, Department of Communication and Development

Monday Paper acted in good faith by responding to an invitation from Mr Bamuamba to attend a presentation and subsequently write an article on his research. We acknowledge that we carry an accountability to be particularly responsible when reporting on discoveries relating to the health and well-being of people.

Monday Paper is aware of its role in this regard and follows a stringent signing-off process with original authors or researchers. It is our experience that postgraduate student researchers often also pass draft articles on to their supervisors for comment and approval. Unfortunately it did not happen in this case.

We will, as is expected of a credible information source, continue to report sensibly and, as far as possible, we will also seek broader input into articles than from a single source.

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