JSPS Quarterly
No.64 2018 Summer

Research and Life in Japan by a JSPS Fellow (46)

Dr. Maurice Ducret Awouafack
Dr. Maurice Ducret Awouafack

“Study on Antibacterial Constituents of Cameroonian Medicinal Plants”

JSPS Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Toyama, 2016-Present
Senior Lecturer, University of Dschang, Cameroon, 2013-Present
Ph.D. (Organic Chemistry), University of Dschang, Cameroon, 2010

Coming to Japan from Cameroon, Dr. Maurice Ducret Awouafack is conducting research with his host Prof. Hiroyuki Morita at the University of Toyama under a JSPS Postdoctoral Fellowship. We asked Dr. Awouafack about his research activities and life in Japan.

Q: What are you currently researching under the JSPS fellowship?

I am currently doing research on antibacterial constituents extracted from Cameroonian medicinal plants. This process involves preliminary studies (ethopharmacological and ethnomedicinal studies) carried out to select and harvest yet-uninvestigated plants used by traditional healers to treat bacterial infections. From these plant materials crude components are extracted and laboratory techniques such as chromatographies (e.g. medium pressure column chromatography, open column chromatography, and preparative high-pressure liquid chromatography) are used for separating mixtures to finally obtain pure compounds, whose structures are determined by elucidating their spectroscopic data, mainly nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, mass spectrometry, ultraviolet and infrared spectroscopy. In this way, the antibacterial activity and other bioactivities (e.g. antioxidant, antiproliferative, antifungal) of the extracts are determined along with their constituents. In some cases, we carry out chemical conversions of the isolated compounds to confirm their structures or to suggest the structure-activity relationship. I have recently started to analyze soil materials in an effort to extract their bioactive constituents for possible application as antibiotics.

With Prof. Morita
          With Prof. Morita

Q: What got you interested in this research subject?

I started getting interest in natural products chemistry during my MSc and PhD studies at the University of Dschang in Cameroon, where its Research Unit of Natural Products Chemistry offered good facilities and had good collaborations with overseas professors, which made it easy for me to carry out research in this field. Moreover, Cameroon has a lot of medicinal plants, which need to be more highly recognized and valued. I wanted to do a work that would both highlight and share the medical importance of these plants. In Cameroon, medicinal plants are used in the traditional ways to treat and cure various ailments. However, we don’t always know what the active compounds or their toxicities are in these plants. Research will allow pharmaceutical companies to make effective use of them in developing medical products that can be sold in our shops. I’m hoping that my research may, if even in a small way, help to develop drugs that can be used in Cameroon and standardized for global consumption. In Cameroon, our medical system is still underdeveloped, which affects the standard of people’s living. We need now to improve the system and develop standard drugs so as to make medicines more easily accessible at low cost in our country—and with such achievements we can export medical drugs.

Q: Your research will be of significant impact to your country. Why did you choose the University of Toyama to pursue it?

The Division of Natural Products Chemistry at the University’s Institute of Natural Medicine has won a high reputation from its publications and its achievements in the field of natural products chemistry. This prompted me to contact Prof. Hiroyuki Morita, who heads this division, about the possibility of hosting me. I was very happy to receive his positive reply.

Q: Other than working with Prof. Morita at the University of Toyama, was there anything else that motivated you to pursue your research in Japan?

More generally, I was looking for a country that would offer the best facilities for me to carry out my research project. Actually, I had previously come to Japan by way of an invitation from Prof. Morita for a 6-month postdoctoral fellowship provided by the Matsumae International Foundation. At that time, he and I discussed a further visit to his research group, and the prestigious JSPS fellowship gave me this opportunity to come back.

Q: From the viewpoint of developing countries, what is the most significant research work you’ve been doing so far?

I think the work that we’re advancing toward new drug discovery will pay significant dividends both in terms of improved healthcare and stronger economies in developing countries. We are investigating medicinal plants in these countries with a view to characterizing the chemical structures of their constituents and to determining their bioactive compounds, With Prof. Morita especially those underlying the activities claimed by traditional healers. In this endeavor, we are working in collaboration with research groups in developed countries where several pharmaceutical companies are exploring the biodiversity of developing countries, mainly of medicinal plants, with an objective of developing new drugs.

Q: We understand that you have done research in several countries. What drew you to them?

I’ve had several opportunities to travel abroad since 2008 when I was given a PhD scholarship at TU Dortmund by the German Academic Exchange Services (DAAD). Thereafter, I went to Finland for an Analytical Skills Development Course on the Chemical Weapons Convention held by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons at VERIFIN, University of Helsinki. Before my first visit to Japan, I was in South Africa for a postdoctoral fellowship awarded by the University of Pretoria under the supervision of Prof. JN Eloff, founder of the Phytomedicine Programme in the University’s Faculty of Veterinary Sciences. During these fellowships, I carried out phytochemical investigations on the bioactive constituents of Cameroonian medicinal plants. Having gained knowledge on the use of the latest analytical devices in natural products chemistry, when I returned to my home university I was able to inspire my research colleagues and share new knowledge in my field with them.

Q: What do you plan to do after your fellowship ends?

After completing my JSPS fellowship, I will return to Cameroon where I am currently lecturing at the University of Dschang. The knowledge I’ve gained in Japan will be useful in improving the quality and productivity of our students’ studies and the work of our researchers in the field of natural products chemistry. I’d also like to continue my research with my host researcher and his team after going back to my country.

Q: Please give some advice for young researchers who may be thinking about doing research in Japan.

Researchers should not be hesitant to come to Japan if they plan to go abroad to advance their work. Japan has a wealth of good facilities in its laboratories and a first-rate environment for conducting research. If lucky, you may be awarded a JSPS postdoctoral fellowship as in my case or other prestigious fellowship or grant to pursue your research in Japan. Being here to do research, you will be able to visit many beautiful places, enjoy Japanese culture and food, and try your hand at learning the Japanese language, which is not needed but can make your stay here more integrative.

We received a warm welcome from Dr.Awouafack, who hails from Cameroon, a country about the size of Sweden whose dense forests are among the wettest places on earth. The study of medicinal plants has brought Dr. Awouafack to Japan and to countries around the world, and engaged him in international joint research. We were very impressed to learn that this concerted research effort is forged by Dr. Awouafack to accrue benefits for the people of Cameroon. He talked to us assionately about his research which works to improve the healthcare and economies of both his own and other developing countries. We wish Dr. Awouafack the utmost success as he strives through his research to develop new and potent drugs from Cameroon’s indigenous medical plants.

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JSPS Quarterly No.64 2018