Biography of Prof Alvaro Viljoen

National Research Chair in Phytomedicine awarded by the NRF/DST in 2013.

My passion for natural history and biology in general guided me to register for a Bachelor of Science degree in 1988.

After obtaining my BSc (Hons) and MSc (both cum laude) on aspects of plant chemistry at the University of Stellenbosch, I commenced with a PhD on the secondary metabolites of the genus Aloe at the University of Johannesburg, which was completed in 1999.

My interest in medicinal plants led me to the School of Pharmacy at the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS) in 1999, where I was appointed as a lecturer in pharmaceutical chemistry. Here, I successfully re-introduced pharmacognosy into the undergraduate BPharm curriculum, resulting in a strong cohort of postgraduate students.

I identified medicinal aromatic plants as a potential research opportunity. South Africa is considered a global epicentre of aromatic plants and many of these plants are used extensively in herbal and traditional medicine; ironically, very little was available on this topic in literature.

I systematically worked with my postgraduate students to record the pharmacological properties and chemical composition of important species. This work culminated in the very first special issue of Journal of Essential Oil Research (2006) dedicated to research on South African medicinal aromatic flora. In acknowledgment of my contribution to this field of research, I was elected onto the editorial board of the Journal of Essential Oils Research (Francis and Taylor).

I am also a permanent member of the scientific committee of the annual International Symposium of Essential Oils (ISEO), a meeting at which I have presented three plenary lectures. Based on research achievements during this period, WITS awarded me the coveted Vice Chancellor’s Friedel Sellschop Award as outstanding young scientist (2001).

After progressing through the ranks of academia, I left the services of WITS as an associate professor to take up a position as full professor and research fellow at the newly established Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) in 2005. Here, I continued my endeavours to develop research capacity in medicinal plant research and initiated this new research thrust in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences.

After overcoming initial challenges, this research programme has developed into one of the most successful programmes at TUT and currently represents one of only two institutional research niche areas with unit status at TUT.  

In my quest to make a contribution to evidence-based medicinal plant research, I realised that basic research should be guided by best-practice pharmaceutical studies. This is particularly true regarding aspects relating to quality, safety and efficacy, which are fundamental to the scientific validation and valorisation of indigenous resources.

After prioritising key species, our group worked tirelessly to develop quality assurance guidelines for the most important South African herbal medicines. Our research integrated established recognized techniques with modern innovative analytical technology to answer questions on the quality of raw materials that impacts on the safety and efficacy of herbal medicines.

My commitment to this aspect of phytomedicine research was recently acknowledged through the 2013 TWAS-ROSSA Award from The World Academy of Sciences for advancing knowledge towards the safe and effective use of herbal medicines. Throughout my career, I have been committed to disseminating scientific knowledge through the publication of peer-reviewed papers. Currently, I have contributed to 185 peer-reviewed papers, mostly on aspects of medicinal plant research. Complementary to my contribution to scientific literature through publications, I have used several conference opportunities to promote medicinal plant research and to act as an ambassador for the botanical diversity and indigenous knowledge systems that are unique and inherent to South Africa.  

A total of 25 invited keynote / plenary lectures have been presented at international meetings. In addition to personal achievements I believe that I continue to provide a service to the greater natural products community by acting as an editor for seven journals including inter alia deputy editor-in-chief Journal of Ethnopharmacology (Elsevier), subject editor for Phytochemistry Letters (Elsevier) and reviewing editor for South African Journal of Botany (Elsevier).

Over the past 4 years I have acted as the guest editor for five special issues for the above mentioned journals. None of the achievements above would be possible without the contribution of the 50 postgraduate students which I have supervised and the 9 postdoctoral fellows which I have hosted in my laboratory.

The highlight of my academic career has been my nomination for a National Research Chair in Phytomedicine, which was awarded by the NRF/DST in 2013, a position I hold concurrently as Director of the recently awarded MRC Herbal Drugs Research Unit in South Africa. 

Prof Alvaro Viljoen in Kirstenbosch - Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden, Cape Town, Cape Peninsula, South Africa [2013 ©]