Ugandan and French scientists have, for months, been observing the
behaviour of a group of chimpanzees whose uncanny aptitude for
self-medication could help their human cousins discover new drugs.
The great apes' ability to treat ailments by adjusting their diet
has long been observed by scientists, including world-renowned
primatologist Jane Goodall, but a project in Uganda's Kibale forest
offers a unique opportunity for pharmaceutical research.
"It's the first time that a chimpanzee observation aimed at
discovering new medicine for humans is conducted within a scientific
framework," said Sabrina Krief, a French veterinary and professor at
the Paris National History Museum.
Chimps guides to new drugs
Uganda is an ideal research ground for the scientists' double
mission of better understanding the chimps' behaviour and using them as
guides towards new molecules - and potentially new drugs.
"Uganda happens to be a country where eight of the 16 centres of
endemic plants in the whole of Africa converge," said John Kasenene,
professor of botanics at the University of Makerere in Kampala.
The university is conducting the project in partnership with the
Natural History Museum in Paris, France's National Centre for
Scientific Research (CNRS) and the Uganda Wildlife Authority.
The Kibale equatorial forest, located some 250 km west of the capital Kampala, offers a high concentration of primates.
"There are very few research stations in the world where chimps have
been so well accustomed to being in the presence of human observers,"
said Krief, who heads the chimp project there.
The key moment in the observation is when one among the group of
around 50 chimps she monitors gets sick.
The primate's choice of food - what he pulls out of his medicine
chest - is packed with information that could lead the scientists to
Relation between human/chimp meds
"We want to compare which plants are used by the traditional healers
or traditional practitioners, and the medicines used by chimpanzees. Is
there a relation for the kind of treatment they go for?" Kasenene
At dawn the team collects the animal's faeces from under that
night's nest and they carry out a range of analyses.
Krief explained how a chimp named Yogi, suffering from intestinal
worms, ingested Aneilema aequinoctiale leaves in the morning and
Albizia grandibracteata bark in the evening.
Such plants have been used in traditional medicine in some areas and
the Kibale team later confirmed through in vitro testing that they
acted against parasites.
Another male chimpanzee who had been feverish and weak was observed
eating only Trichilia rubescens leaves for a whole day.
Leaves effective against malaria
The plants' molecules, later isolated by the scientists in a
laboratory, were found to be effective against malaria.
"These findings have allowed us to discover new plant molecules with
significant properties against malaria, worms or tumours," Krief said.
Dennis Kamoga, a botanics researcher from Makerere University, is
tasked with collecting samples from plants ingested by chimps that will
later be analysed in both France and Uganda.
"What is surprising to me is that these chimps have no chemist, no
lab... They simply move in and collect plants and eventually find
themselves getting cured," the 27-year-old marvelled. "It's a proof
that they are very close to us."
Around 100 different kinds of plants have already been sampled in
Kibale since the start of 2007.
"It's quite rare to find active molecules, but especially new
molecules, which might put us on the path to developing new
pharmaceuticals," being the ultimate goal of the project, Krief
The French scientist said she hoped that, while advancing medicine
for humans, the research project in Kibale could also contribute to "a
better understanding and protection of the flora and the great apes" in
the forest, both of which include critically endangered species. - (Lucie Peytermann/Sapa/AFP)