Vanguard (Lagos)

Nigeria: We Derive Useful Products From Fungal Organisms - Uche Kanife

If we can produce our drugs locally with raw materials sourced from our environment, definitely the cost of drugs, and subsequently, money spent on healthcare, will reduce. So researchers like Dr. (Mrs) Uche Kanife, a senior lecturer in the Department of Biological Science, Yaba College of Technology, Lagos, are working hard to see that they get local alternatives to some imported drugs using medicinal plants and fungal organisms. In this chat with Vanguard Learning in Lagos, Kanife talks about her work on the ergot fungus, Claviceps purpurea from which an important drug is made. Excerpts:

The problem:

Dr. (Mrs) Uche Kanife said most of her researches have been on medicinal plants, but during her PhD work, she concentrated on fungal organisms. Said she; "Actually I just concluded a PhD thesis in my area of specialisation, Mycology/Biotechnology, using fungal organisms to derive useful products.

I concentrated on fungal organisms, trying to isolate active components from fungi that could be used to produce drugs that can stop bleeding after childbirth. The drug is normally administered to women immediately after childbirth, just few minutes before the placenta comes out, to control bleeding.

What is normally used in most hospitals is ergometrine and ergometrine is produced from a plant commonly called rye plant, a temperate plant that does not grow in the tropics. Unfortunately, the fungus Claviceps purpurea, which produces the active component used for the production of ergometrine, can only grow on the rye plant."

Breakthrough:

Kanife said in the course of her work on Claviceps purpurea, an ergot fungus, she found out that it can grow on a tropical plant called Panicum maximum, commonly known as Guinea, Tanganyika or Buffalo grass "and we have the Guinea grass growing all over the place.

Guinea grass is an ideal forage grass. Apart from being a forage grass, it can be used for phyto-remediation which is the use of living green plants for in situ risk reduction and/or removal of contaminants from contaminated soil, water, sediments, and air.

"I concentrated on the active component of the fungus that grows in the flowers of this grass, basically because it is a tropical plant; it can easily be cultivated unlike the rye plant that cannot be grown in the tropics.

I was able to come up with an active component which we characterized as an alkaloid. We are yet to introduce it to the pharmaceutical industry but we have registered the findings. It is a novel research work, the first of its kind. The only work that has been done using infected Guinea grass was so many years ago and they only tested the ability of the infected grass to cause any physiological change.

In fact, that was the baseline of my work because we felt that if this infected grass that has this fungus can cause physiological changes like changing the colour of the liver, the lungs and all that, it would probably be as a result of toxic substances present in the infected grass, so we took off from there and on carrying out further research, I came up with the source of the toxic substance."

An alternative:

"There are toxic substances present in the infected plant and the toxic substances were produced by the Clavicep purpurea so the fungus' ability to produce the ergot was our template. Unfortunately, the rye plant grows only in temperate regions and so we keep spending money importing this drug. Since the organism can grow on a tropical plant, the Guinea grass, we went into the research from that angle to produce an alternative, something we can use in place of ergometrine.

We all know the problem of maternal mortality. If you look at World Health Organisation's (WHO) reports over the years, you will see that it is really on the increase. Most times, women give birth even in local hospitals and because of bleeding after childbirth, a lot of them lose their lives so it has been a problem that even the medical field has not really been able to proffer solution to.

A lot of toxicity studies have been carried out and we were able to arrive at the fact that they are very safe because they did not affect kidney or liver functions and their enzymes. You know it is the kidney and liver that detoxify drugs."

Other works: Apart from that, we have been carrying out researches on herbal plants in a bid to isolate active components but we have not really gone very far in characterizing them. We did chromatographic work, Thin Layer Chromatography (TLC), column chromatography before we could get that single active component which we are yet to name but because it is active, I had to get the work registered.

And then we have also tried to look at some other organisms that could be of economic importance because fungal organisms, apart from causing diseases, have a lot of toxic substances that can be used in the production of drugs that can be used as teratogenic drugs ie drugs that can be used to produce contraceptives," she stated.

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