Recently, the World Bank disclosed that most of the country's researches are gathering dust in the cupboards as they do not see the light of day. In this interview with WINIFRED OGBEBO, the Director-General, Nigerian Institute of Pharmaceutical Research and Development (NIPRD), Prof Karminius Gamaniel, speaks on the factors hampering research work in the country and the need for collaborations to explore the multibillion Naira herbal market.
Ever since Niprisan, the drug for sickle cell, we have not heard anything. So what is the situation of things presently?
Niprisan is coming back with full force now. It's a long time now that we've not seen it, which was in the market as Nicosan. You are witnesses also to the signing of MoU with some activities that happened which was done mainly to bring back Niprisan to the people. We have also been working in the laboratory to produce other products not related to Niprisan but are phyto-medicines. You know, the institute is now the centre of excellence for phyto-medicines as identified by ANDI. We were given award. So with that, we have opened more doors for collaboration. We have also developed standard templates for developing phyto-medicines the way Niprisan came and, as a matter of fact, we have three low hanging fruits now in that respect. We are confident that, very soon, we will have one product, either from the anti-diabetic stock or from the anti-fungal stock or from anti-HIV. What we have is a new booster that we wish to develop to be used in conjunction with anti-retroviral drugs.
We also have a lead for anti -malaria product. So the attention of NIPRD is focused on that now in terms of product or drug delivery. Our target is to list at least two of these low hanging fruits based on the laboratory data that we have already generated. The average service is what I call the laboratory research services. Now, we get this kind of request more and more now because our laboratories are on their own stable. We have more equipment working now. We have more people in terms of commitment to research. The demand for analysis from the public, NGOs, universities, research institutes and from people in Diaspora has increased. I think they are satisfied with the kind of services we are giving them. Our target is to give a boost to the herbal medicine industry in this country. Many more products are being registered now based on our efforts. We have noticed that the number has jumped to 70. That indicates that demand is increasing and also shows the capacity of the institute to meet the need of people that want their samples alive. And these samples don't just come only for phyto-medicines: some bring water for analysis; some bring food items like 'kilishi' to analyse the heavy metal lodged in 'kilishi'. We need to do that to determine the safety in terms of heavy metal and in terms of contamination. These are the kinds of things we do here.
Our people are now also happy because they are now busy doing this work in the laboratory.
Do you have challenges?
Of course, there are difficulties especially when we don't have the facilities at the right time. What we have done is to establish a revolving fund. So people pay for the service and it's ploughed into the system, either used for repairing equipment or to buy consumables. As they finish, we replenish because it's a revolving fund.
What stage are you in the development of low hanging fruit?
There are basic requirements for products to be listed or registered with NAFDAC. There is difference between listing and registration. For listing, they first register you and observe the product. If within two years, we have any reason to delist the product, we delist. But the full registration is for five years and these are products that can actually be used in public hospitals and can enjoy prescription even to the full, safe and useful products. Most drugs that we use today are registered with NAFDAC in that category. Most of the items that we use like food items and herbal products are also listed, to develop more scientific data for them and do full clinical trial. So, there are series of tests which NAFDAC would like to see pertaining to safety and efficacy of the product before they even list it. So I think we are not so far.
On this product, we have done their safety. We call them lead. They are lead and they will become drug products when we've done all the tests that are necessary. We also test their stability either in solution so that they don't degrade on packaging. We do specific or efficacy test. For example, in anti-malaria products, they are tested against laboratory models of malaria on animals. If they cure our animals of malaria, then, of course, automatically, they will also cure malaria in humans. We've done the efficacy thing. We are at the stage of formulating the product in such a way that the activities are maintained and safety issues are not associated with the product. In all the tests so far, we've had 60 to 70 data that is required. If we had our way, we would have finished before now. There are delays to funding and so on, which has slowed the pace. But like I told you, at least one or two of these products will come up very soon.
Has your funding increased now?
To be frank with you, two years ago, our overhead - which is the main thing that drives this place - was paltry. But now, it has increased, and our capital, too. We expect this trend to be maintained. There are people at the grassroots who need our services but cannot afford to come to Abuja, but if we had centre in Lagos, for instance, that would defray cost for them as tests will be carried out there and people will begin to feel the impact of this research institute. So there's the need for increased funding in that respect so that activities can be increased, and services can be opened because in the laboratory services, we really want people to bring samples for test now. The institute will automatically grow because we are keeping data also on the source of our requests. Is it pharmaceutical company, NGO, government department, or school? We want to collaborate and once we identify where there's need, then we can go on to establish a small laboratory in those areas for easy access because that's the only way the herbal industry can grow; because there's a lot in it - there's a lot in phyto-medicines and natural products.
The World Bank said that many researches are lying down in cupboards; how far have you collaborated with universities in the area of researches in order to make them have impact on the people?
We are actually working with the universities, but we are still down the line in terms of that dream that the universities do research most of which will be academic. Now, bringing these into products is the job of an institute like NIPRD. So we are working towards that. Recently, I was at the National Universities Commission (NUC) with six pilot collaborations between the universities and research institutes. The Nigerian Institute for Medical Research was also there. We were the only research institute invited by the NUC to discuss the bio-medical research in the universities. This point came out clearly that we should begin to harvest the efforts being made in all institutions through collaboration. As far as that goes now, the six universities and two research institutes are linked and targeting to upscale the bench researches that are generated annually in our universities.
Now, with this pilot, we may be able to expand that to the remaining universities that do research and development. I can't say we have reached there yet, but we are going there.
Is it true that most of the researches at the universities are purely academic and not something that can be utilised for living?
It's not that they cannot be used; it's just that the motivation to do product development, the consciousness has not been there in our university system. Even in the developed world, it wasn't as much as it is now. Suddenly, people have realised that to do product development is more gainful because you get royalties at the end of the day and you get the product produced by commercial companies to reach the people. But here, we have been doing research. Very few efforts have been made but it's not as if we have even tapped one-tenth of the knowledge we generate through academic research. So the target is: let's translate the bench work which we do in academic research into products or into services which will benefit humanity.
Research is often defined based on grasp of some questions or difficulties. So when you get the answer, instead of taking it to the right industry or place, or the information to the right quarters, we seem to be satisfied with the degree and certification. But there's a lot more you can gain apart from publication. You can get good reputation. Many people are realizing it now. Herbal medicines or the medicines from natural products are now a multibillion Naira business world over. It is estimated at about $60billion transactions. So we want to tap into that resource. To do that, we have to coordinate and upscale our researches.
What are you doing to fill in the gap for scarce health essentials? For instance, the HIV testing kit which is said to be very scarce - can't you fill that need?
We do. It's one thing really to develop a product but it's another thing to win the market. Several institutes have made effort. Even this institute was the first to do the survey of predominant HIV subtypes in this country. That was done in order to prepare the country for HIV vaccine project.
That means if we were to embark on the project development, we will put in mind the larger population that will benefit from that project. Of course, up until date we have not developed the vaccine. It's not just the market, but also the investment in that respect. It takes a lot of patience and investment and direction of research also. So we need collaboration because it's not a one man or institute project to develop drugs or vaccine.
Why are Nigerian scientists not visible in international research. The malaria vaccine being developed for children presently in Ghana, there is no Nigerian involved.
Actually, malaria is a difficult area when it comes to vaccine. But that is not to say that Nigerians have not made effort. We have people like Prof Kolapo who are renowned in malariology before he retired and most of the knowledge being used also includes some of the works that have been done in Nigeria and outside Nigeria.
Like I said, the issue of malaria vaccine is a bit complicated (and I don't want to go into details) but the different life forms of malaria, if you look at the life cycle, it is not like TB which has one spot and one target or one spot and two targets and so on. In malaria, you have to choose the most suitable life form and you will also have to choose the appropriate materials to make this target. So I congratulate scientists for making this bold move and I am happy it is coming up. But I do know that it's a conglomerate of knowledge about malaria that has led to the vaccine. As you know, vaccine, unlike the normal drugs, is actually using the bacterial of that organism to fight the organism. So vaccine comes from knowledge of the malaria itself. To be honest with you, research in Nigeria is cost intensive. For instance, as I am talking with you, we are using a generator and this alone takes the bulk of our over head.
Funding research through budgeting does not help matters because if the first quarter budget finishes, you have to wait for second quarter and then third quarter and research is not like other business that you carry and go. You take time to plan and to do the study. So this kind of logistics difficulty also frustrates research.
What is the way forward?
The way forward is for us to invest in research because investing in research gives good returns both in terms of health - because you will be contributing to the National Health Agenda by getting more products, and by discouraging bad products through research.
Research is actually the eye of development because it's the only avenue you use to ask questions about what you are doing: whether it's working or not; whether it's helping or not and whether it's helping society or not. A simple study will be a questioning. So it's the eye of any effort to development. So it should be given priority. There is control in research. There are standards that if you don't meet, you result will not respond to need; so it's checked immediately. We have to strengthen the laboratory, the human capacity, and the institutions, encourage collaboration and provide infrastructure. These are the ways that we can go. The earlier we do it, the better.