The collaboration, known as The International Center for Indigenous Phytotherapy Studies (TICIPS), is between the University of Missouri-Columbia in the US and the University of Western Cape, South Africa.
More than 200,000 traditional healers operating in South Africa already use thousands of the country's traditional plant species - however many of these plants have not been studied in a controlled scientific environment.
According to Quinton Johnson, director of the South African Herbal Science and Medicine Institute and co-director of TICIPS, the NCCAM (National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicines) funding gives medical doctors, scientists and traditional healers their very first opportunity to cooperate as equal partners on an international basis.
"TICIPS creates a unique bridge between Western and African medicine systems, with the aim of bringing hope, health and healing to all," he said.
One of the initial aims of the project will be to assess indigenous African phytotherapies for AIDS, secondary infection and immune modulation.
A study conducted in 2002 estimated 11.4 percent of all South Africans over the age of two years to be HIV-positive, and 15.6 percent of those aged 15 and 49.
Sunderlandia, or Lessertia frutescens, has shown promise in preventing wasting in AIDS patients, and a small pilot study carried out by the TICIPS team has already investigated its safety in healthy adults. One of the projects enabled by the funding will extend the safety research to HIV-infected patients, and also look into efficacy.
Another plant, Artemisia afra, is to be investigated for its reputed benefits for tuberculosis, a respiratory disease that preys in weakened immune systems and is the leading cause of death in people infected with HIV. It is believed to be responsible for between 11 and 50 percent of all AIDS deaths.
According to the Stop TB partnership, 14 million people worldwide have both TB and AIDS, 70 percent of whom are in Africa.
Another TICIPS project will investigate Artemisia afra's potential in the prevention and treatment of cervical cancer.
"Nature has thousands of secrets that we have yet to discover," said TICIPS co-director Bill Folk, professor of biochemistry and associate dean for research at the University of Missouri's School of Medicine.
"This is a big first step in uncovering some of those secrets and seeing how we can better understand these alternative medicines."