Dearth of research funds hampering innovations in Nigeria
Professor Isa Marte Hussaini is a Fellow of the Nigeria Academy of Pharmacy, renowned cancer researcher and a professor of cancer pharmacology at the University of Maiduguri. He has had stints as a researcher and academic at Ahmadu Bello University, the Nigerian Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development and the University of Virginia in the United States. He is known for exploring the use of local herbs in cancer therapy.. In this interview with CHIJIOKE NELSON, he talks about funding challenges and the effects on research and development in Nigeria, his breakthroughs, among other issues.
What would you blame for the dearth of innovation and research and development in this country?
The attention and awareness on research and development is not solid because it seems that Nigeria is a sort of consumer nation- we don’t produce quality products, we don’t do research. Even our industries like the pharmaceutical industries, don’t do research and development. The same scenario is prevalent in our universities. Whatever we produce or publish is left on the shelves and not translated into products. There is also very little innovation, we just do the same thing over and over again.
For example, if you go to the Unites States of America, every two or three years, you will see an emergence of new technology, things are moving forward like the human genome, which has been sequenced and now we know our genes, we know where they are located. Now, they are talking of targeted therapy but here in Nigeria, we are doing the same things at very rudimentary stages. Definitely, there is room for improvement but it has to come from above. Someone has got to challenge us. Nigerians are very smart people, you go to the USA and Europe and you find Nigerians really excelling but you come back home and find out that we lack the very basic facilities to do research. It is a huge problem.
Is funding for research the problem? What is the remedy?
Funding in Nigeria is not adequate, in fact, it is non-existent. When I was in the United States, within a space of 10 to 12 years, I was able to generate up to $5 million worth of research, which is about N1.8 billion. But in Nigeria in eight years, I was only able to get N10 million from Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETfund) and that is not enough at all. The Federal Government has already set up TETfund, but most of the money is expended on building structures and training of academic staff. But when you look at critical resource tools like reagents, equipment, very little is spent on that and that is what really drives research.
You are a leading researcher in the field of cancer. What is your attraction to cancer as a research subject?
Cancer is a challenging disease and people have been doing research for probably 20, 30, even 50 years and up till now, virtually very little has been accomplished in terms of treatment. We have understood all the different components or the pathways leading to formation of tumours and cancer, but apart from one cancer, which is chronic myelogenous leukemia, there is no cure for cancer. It is this challenge of trying to find a treatment for cancer that really made me go into this area of research.
My training abroad considerably influenced my decision to study cancer. My doctorate programme was on enzymes called protease, which has relevance in cancer as well as cardiovascular diseases. In the western world and the United States of America, cardiovascular diseases are the number one killer diseases, followed by cancer. I happened to study in the University of Virginia, where cancer research 15-20 years ago was the vogue and everyone thought it was cool as well as the quest in trying to find a treatment was too good to pass over. When you look at Malaria, TB, HIV, these are preventable diseases and they are treatable but not cancer. So my training in the United States influenced me.
Are you fulfilled carrying out your research locally, as many others continue to complain?
In Nigeria, doing research now is really challenging. What one would, sort of, take for granted in developed climes like water, electricity, reagents are not available in Nigeria. Nigeria used to be a leader in research like when I was an undergraduate in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but suddenly things changed and nowadays, you find that most of these facilities are not there in our universities. Really, it’s a Herculean task to ask a researcher to conduct his work in Nigeria. It isn’t easy, I’d be honest.
Yes, I have done some research locally. As a matter of fact, in the last eight years, I have been doing research in Maiduguri. I was fortunate to bring some of my equipment from the U..S. of America to Maiduguri. Also I had some leftover of my funding in the U..S. and I was allowed to buy reagents in the United States, which is how I have been able to push my research in Nigeria. However, in terms of facilities and funding, definitely, it is a tasking job to research in Nigeria .
Do you see your research leading to the development of a drug that prevents or eliminates cancer in the future?
I absolutely believe that in the very near future my research could lead to the development of a drug, which either prevents or eliminates cancer. This optimism is premised on the fact that we have already identified 10 medicinal plants that are more effective than currently used drugs for cancer. We have also isolated three compounds, which are very effective not only in the lab in-vitro, but also in-vivo in animal models. So, I am very hopeful that in the next three to five years, we will carry out some clinical trials and I am sure, out of this 10, some, if not all of them, will be effective. This is because traditional herbalists have used these medicinal plants for generations. What we did was to scientifically validate what they have done. We also found out that some of these herbs are for specific diseases like breast cancer, others for brain tumours and others for a combination of two or three cancers.
The only problem is that the herbalists or traditional doctors, in terms of diagnosis, do not have the tools and the knowledge. However, some of them claim they can diagnose cancer and having interviewed them, some of the symptoms and signs that they use are very convincing and are currently in use even in the hospitals .
What do you see as the role of the society in drawing attention to the plight of research and need to improve it?
There is where we need a lot of advocacy groups to come out and show some love and support. This culture is well entrenched in western countries. Back in the U.S., you will find that when we were reviewing grants at the NIH, laypeople will come to our plenary sessions, to see the way we do things. And these people in turn, go out and make a case to the legislative and executive arms of government.
There are ways of doing this- associations and individuals and I see the Academy of Pharmacy stepping up to play a more influential role as an advocacy group. They will form a sort of blueprint for research, not only for pharmacy but other professionals. Also the Academy of Science can also play a major role in this wise. But then, that is, if the Executive will listen to these groups because everything requires money and research requires a lot of money. I believe that all of us as members of the society can be strong advocates for research in Nigeria.
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