Ethiopian, Ohio State Pharmacy Collaboration Yields New Understanding of Plant’s Role in Cancer Treatment

Ermias Mekuria Addo (center) receives J-1 scholars certificate from President Drake

A collaboration born out of desire for international academic sharing has yielded important findings that could shade our understanding of cancer treatments in the future.

Ethiopian Ermias Mekuria Addo, a graduate student from the School of Pharmacy, Addis Ababa University with an interest in bioactive natural products, found opportunity to carry out research with medicinal plants native to his country at The Ohio State University College of Pharmacy.

A visit to Ethiopia by Ohio State’s College of Pharmacy’s Dean Emeritus, Robert W. Brueggemeier, PhD, and Professor and Chair of Medicinal Chemistry and Pharmacognosy, Karl Werbovetz, prompted the effort. Their visit was made possible by the university’s One Health Initiative, a movement to forge co-equal, all-inclusive collaborations among scientific-health and environmentally related disciplines to address links between human health, animal health and the environment. Brueggemeier and Werbovetz saw great potential in creating a collaborative program at the college. “It was obvious that there were areas of mutual interest, for example, studying plants used in traditional healing,” said Werbovetz. “We thought we could have a student come to our college for a year with their plants, after the appropriate agreements were put in place, using our labs for study.”

Pharmacy faculty selected Addo to study in Columbus as part of his ‘sandwich master’s degree,’ meaning he could use his work at Ohio State to help satisfy the requirements of his master’s degree at Addis Ababa University. “As a fellowship recipient at The Ohio State University College of Pharmacy, one of the most accredited pharmacy colleges across the world, I have got a lot of experiences in the drug discovery process, starting from the simple but most important lab safety procedures,” said Addo. “More specifically and importantly I got a tremendous experience on how to select and make best use of bioassay and isolation methods and the techniques important in characterization of the isolated bioactive natural compounds from Ethiopian traditional medicines.”

“Ermias worked in my lab for a year,” said Harinantenaina Liva Rakotondraibe, PhD, Assistant Professor of Medicinal Chemistry and Pharmacognosy. “He finished the first part of his master’s program when he left his country and continued the second part of his program in my lab. He came with medicinal plant extracts from his country to isolate and determine the structure of the active principles that are present in the extracts (which is Rakotondraibe’s field of expertise).”

The Ethiopian plant Podocarpus falcatus (or yew pine) was selected for anticancer study due to its use in traditional medicine. An extract of the plant was prepared and evaluated for its ability to inhibit the growth of cancer cell lines. Bioassay-guided fractionation and isolation, aided with chromatographic and spectroscopic methods were used to isolate promising anticancer compounds. To date, ten promising compounds showed antiproliferative activity. It is hoped that these bioactive compounds, some of which have new structures, can be further developed into new anticancer drug leads.

At the end of his fellowship, Addo and Rakotondraibe, along with Ethiopian researchers Drs. Ariaya Hymete, Mariamawit Yonathan Yeshak and American collaborators, published their Podocarpus falcatus findings in a paper in the Journal of Natural Products, the leading peer-reviewed scientific journal in the natural products field, co-published by the American Society of Pharmacognosy and the American Chemical Society.

Addo’s work in Rakotondraibe’s lab enabled him to get enough results to defend his master’s thesis at Addis Ababa University last June. He also participated in two local symposiums: J-1 visiting scholar research ( and OIA-organized Symposium on International Scholarship- “The Global Landscape: Challenges and Resilience.”

According to Rakotondraibe, the cross-collaborative effort was very successful. “Selecting the right students was key. Our division members organized a committee to select the best candidate among the applicants.”

Moving forward, Rakotondraibe would like to build more infrastructure to continue the program. “For me as a new faculty, this should lead to an international collaboration with successful grant proposals. I am also working with Madagascan researchers and would like to widen these types of collaborations.”