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Kalulu Taba wins 2017 C.N.R. Rao Prize

Kalulu Taba wins 2017 C.N.R. Rao Prize

The Congolese organic chemist and TWAS Fellow verified that local plants used by herbalists help purify water and treat malaria. Now he's the winner of the C.N.R. Rao prize for his outstanding work.

Kalulu Taba, a 2015 TWAS Fellow and organic chemist at The University of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is the recipient of the 2017 C.N.R. Rao Prize for scientific research.

Taba was honoured for his contributions to the knowledge of natural products found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that help treat malaria and disinfect water. His work tests local herbal medicine traditions in the DRC, such as those practiced by trusted community members to treat diseases, to scientifically demonstrate their effectiveness so that they can be more broadly used throughout the country.

In rural, poor parts of the DRC it’s common to live on as little as a single U.S. dollar per day, Taba said, and roughly 80% of people use plants to cure diseases. They just can’t afford anything more expensive. His research helps people use these herbal remedies more effectively. 

While knowledge from traditional healers is useful, Taba said, it’s sometimes not enough, and standardizing the treatment of patients helps bring death rates down. They had particular success with several plants used to treat malaria. “Malaria can go to the brain,” he said. “You need official treatment, and we made sure that the plants work and that they’re safe.”

The announcement was made on 8 December in Trieste, Italy, in advance of the annual meeting of the TWAS Council. The C.N.R. Rao prize includes a USD5,000 award, generously offered by TWAS Founding Fellow and former Academy President C.N.R. Rao of India. The prize is a recognition bestowed to scientists from Least Developing Countries whose scientific research has a high impact.

Eligible candidates for the 2017 prize were TWAS Fellows from the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) who have made significant contributions to global science. Taba is the ninth winner of the prize since it was established in 2006.

Taba gained his doctorate in 1979 at Northwestern University in the United States. He has since worked at numerous prestigious research institutions, including the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research in Germany, the National Centre for Scientific Research in France, and the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Belgium. He returned to the DRC in the late 1980s and is now an organic chemistry professor at the University of Kinshasa. 

Taba said he came back because wanted to help the poor population of the country. He is also the only citizen of the DRC who is currently a Fellow of TWAS, and is a member of the committee of researchers working to establish a DRC academy of sciences. 

While the DRC is more stable now than at the time of his return, Congolese researchers still struggle. The nation, he said, simply doesn’t have much money for science. Taba needs roughly $15,000 a year for his lab that he often can't quite obtain.

That is why he’s dedicating himself to establish networks of scientists and getting collaborations across borders moving. He’s hoping the award will help.

“I did a lot of research in Europe, but then I came home,” he said. “The problems are very different, they’re basic problems. And you need to do research to help these people, help them move forward with basic things.”

Helping the impoverished stay healthy

Malaria kills hundreds of thousands of people every year, mostly children and pregnant women. In his malaria research, he and his team tracked the level of the malaria parasite in the blood of patients and determined that the molecules they isolated from local plants made the parasites numbers measurably drop, and sometimes even disappear.

“We did a survey of the plant remedies used by the population of Congolese traditional healers to treat their malaria,” he said. “We came up with eight plants most used, and then we took these remedies to clinical trial.

“We found the remedies were efficient in treating an uncomplicated case of malaria,” he added. “We made standard all the preparations and wrote a book on it for distribution and we’re starting teaching people how to take care of these uncomplicated cases of malaria.”

A key part of Taba’s work is community outreach, and he and his team directly contact community leaders in order to teach them how to use the herbal medicines so that practices confirmed to be effective become more widespread. 

“You find where people are, in churches or with a community leader, and go to explain to them how to use it,” he said. “It’s difficult to reach some communities, but if you show a few people, they will teach everyone else.”

Taba is also highly regarded for having scientifically confirmed that Aframomum alboviolaceum, a leafy plant with purple flowers that grows where water pollution is rampant, is useful to purify water in the region and make it drinkable. 

The United Nations has estimated that more than 3 million people worldwide die every year from diseases caused by contaminated drinking water.

Normally, to disinfect water using sunlight, you need to fill a bottle with water and expose it directly to the heat of the sun, he said. The ultraviolet light of the sun kills the bacteria after about six hours normally. 

But when the compound from the plant’s extract is placed with the water in the bottle, it lowers the time it takes to purify the water to as little as 30 minutes. Taba and his colleagues demonstrated this in the early 1990s.

“It’s very simple,” he mused. “You put the extract and the water inside, then you shake it a little to get oxygen all over, and then you expose to the sun.”

Previous winners of the C.N.R. Rao Prize are: Mahouton Norbert Hounkonnou, Benin (2016); Bishal Nath Upreti, Nepal (2015); Muntaser Eltayeb Ibrahim, Sudan (2014); Firdausi Qadri, Bangladesh (2013); Wendimagegn Mammo Deneke, Ethiopia (2012); Akissa Bahri, Ghana/Tunisia (2009); Maurice Tchuente, Cameroon (2008); Berhanu M. Abegaz, Ethiopia and Philippe Rasoanaivo, Madagascar (2006).

Sean Treacy

About C.N.R. Rao
Rao is a globally renowned chemist and science policy leader. He has chaired the Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister of India.He is currently the National Research Professor, Linus Pauling Research Professor and Honorary President of Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bangalore, which he founded in 1989. He served as TWAS president from 2000 to 2007, where he established himself as an driving force who made great contributions to the success of the Academy. Rao also played a central role in many governmental agencies and on committees in India.

About TWAS
The World Academy of Sciences for the advancement of science in developing countries – TWAS – works to advance sustainable prosperity through research, education, policy and diplomacy. TWAS was founded in 1983 by a distinguished group of scientists from the developing world, under the leadership of Abdus Salam, the Pakistani physicist and Nobel Prize winner. Today, TWAS has more than 1,200 elected Fellows from 96 countries; 15 of them are Nobel laureates. The Academy is based in Trieste, Italy, on the campus of the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP). Through more than three decades, its mission has focused on supporting and promoting excellence in scientific research in the developing world and applying scientific and engineering research to address global challenges. TWAS receives core funding from the government of Italy and essential programmatic funding from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida). The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) administers TWAS funds and personnel.