Researching the plant kingdom for new medicines

Mate Erdelyi already knew during his teenage years that he wanted to become a chemist. Now he is leading a major research project that covers everything from natural African remedies to new methods for combating antibiotic resistance – and involves every continent.

Mate Erdelyi

Mate Erdelyi

Mate Erdelyi’s research puts him in a variety of unusual situations. For example, finding the best way to get Maasai healers to talk about their natural remedies. The project involves studying natural African remedies and plants to find substances that are effective against malaria, cancer and tuberculosis.

The work is not without its complications. Mate and his colleagues are dependent on local doctoral students obtaining information from natural healers.“They would never tell me anything. And they aren’t exactly overjoyed when we pick their medical plants. So there have been a few hairy situations. Once, the group had to pay its way out of the situation.”

His team at the Department of Chemistry and Molecular Biology works in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, where young researchers gather the plants. Active substances are then extracted and assessed. A large number of molecules have proven to be active, and are now undergoing further testing. There are some plant families that researchers know have an antimalarial effect. If they are too toxic to treat malaria, they could be used in the fight against cancer.

“If plants are used as a natural remedy, there’s a good chance that they have a biological effect. Historically, most of the drugs we use have come from nature. Only about ten percent of all plants have been studied, so there’s a huge amount left.”

The project also involves young African doctoral students coming to work with the team in Gothenburg.
“The doctoral students learn a way of working that they then take home with them. This can lead to really big, exciting things. This is a project of scientific interest that also has an enormous social impact.”

He identifies with these young doctoral students, having chosen his own course in life as a teenage in Hungary.
“It may sound incredible, but I already knew from my second or third chemistry lesson that this was what I wanted to do.”

Another of his projects deals with antibiotic resistance – one of the world’s greatest threats to public health. His team is working together with Chinese researchers, trying to approach the problem from a new direction.
“We’re trying to develop new molecules which stop the enzyme that breaks down antibiotics. If we succeed, we could continue using old drugs despite resistance. We need to think in different ways to the approaches of the last 70-80 years.”

A third project being carried out by Mate’s research team relates to halogen bonding. “It’s actually our biggest area,” he says. This is a chemical interaction that has been known about since the 19th century, but that researchers did not know how to use in practice until the late 1990s.

New analysis techniques and an interdisciplinary way of working have allowed his research team to start developing what he calls a molecular tool. This could make all types of pharmaceuticals more effective, so that smaller quantities could be used with fewer side effects.

“It’s all about developing a new communication route – a bit like inventing the internet. And if we succeed, it will be incredibly useful.”