Running rings around oxygen and nitrogen to discover lead molecules for pharmaceuticals


The cost of healthcare in South Africa is expensive and in many cases inaccessible to those that cannot afford it. In addition, problems such as antibacterial resistance and the rising increase in cancer globally, highlights the need for the development of new pharmaceuticals with increased bioactivity or fewer side-effects than known drugs on the market. Two approaches have been used for the discovery of new leads, looking at plant metabolites, and synthesising organic molecules from basic starting materials.  Plants biosynthesise secondary metabolites from simple chemical building blocks that they use for defense and fight off fungal and bacterial infections. Our research aims at tapping into this vast reservoir of natural products and finding applications for them as pharmaceuticals.  We also mimic this synthetically, by using small organic building blocks, making larger organic molecules, whose scaffolds exist in nature with known bioactivity.  Over the years, we have isolated and synthesised a library of over 500 molecules in an attempt to identify suitable candidates in the pursuit of discovering better and more effect drugs.

Curriculum Vitae

Biographical sketch


Neil Koorbanally is an Organic Chemist in the School of Chemistry and Physics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.  He is an Organic Chemist by training and holds a Ph.D. from the former University of Natal (2001) and a Masters cum laude (1998) in Organic Chemistry.  He was a former Colenso scholar at St. John’s College in Cambridge in the United Kingdom in 2005 and is a member of several academic societies such as the Phytochemical Society of Europe, the American Chemical Society and South African Chemical Institute.  He also sits on the editorial board of Natural Products Communications.

His interests include Natural Products Chemistry and the discovery of lead compounds from plant sources used in traditional medicine, and in Synthetic Organic Chemistry specialising in the synthesis of heterocyclic molecules. Prof. Koorbanally has discovered compounds with antibacterial activity, sickle cell anaemia, antioxidant properties, anti-inflammatory activity, antimalarial activity and menopausal disorder activity. He has been involved in the synthesis of quinolines, quinoxalines, benzimidazoles, chalcones, flavonoids and beta lactams, with activity against tuberculosis, and certain types of cancers and bacteria. During his time at Cambridge, he worked on the biosynthetic pathways to the antibiotics butirosin and neomycin under the late Dr Joe Spencer.

Prof. Koorbanally has graduated 24 doctoral and 20 Masters students to date and published widely with over 125 publications and 1 patent on bioactive compounds against sickle cell anaemia.  His research group comprises 16 students at the postdoctoral, doctoral and Masters level, all working on the synthesis of bioactive medicinal compounds.  His administrative roles include being Assistant Dean and Director of Access in the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science.  He is the current Academic Leader of Research in the School of Chemistry and Physics.