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‘With Oligo synthesiser, technology will bring relief to medical practice’

The NIMR was the first institute of medical research in Nigeria created in 1920 as the centre for production of yellow fever vaccine before it metamorphosed into the present day NIMR....

Professor Babatunde Lawal Salako, Director General of the Nigerian Institute Of Medical Research, NIMR.

Advances in health research and information technology are enabling a transformation in the sector. Prof. Babatunde Lawal Salako, Director General, Nigeria Institute of Medical Research(NIMR), in this interview with The Guardian, speaks on the partnership with MTN Foundation, the recent donation of an Oligo synthesiser and its impact to the health sector.

What is the mandate of Nigeria Institute of Medical Research?
The NIMR was the first institute of medical research in Nigeria created in 1920 as the centre for production of yellow fever vaccine before it metamorphosed into the present day NIMR through the Ministry of Science and Technology along with other institutes in 1997. Currently, the mandate of NIMR is to conduct research into diseases prevalent across Nigeria. Meaning, diseases that cause a high increase in mortality among Nigerians.

In most cases, these were infectious diseases until the last years, when we observed that the non-communicable diseases were equally as dangerous as the communicable diseases. The institute is expanding its research structure to cover a lot of other non-communicable diseases such as, sickle cell, cancer, diabetes, among others, and this is the mandate. This is expected to provide opportunities for policy briefing through research reports to the Ministry of health (State or Federal) and to collaborate with universities and other research institutes in Nigeria as well as other private organisations is what the institute has been doing over the years.

To state plainly, the institute is primarily focused on helping Nigeria and protecting them in a way beneficial to their health?
Exactly. The institute is expected to introduce innovative ideas, treatments, and diagnosis, following research reports that can be adapted by hospitals in Nigeria and elsewhere to improve the health status of Nigerian population and the world at large.

The advancement in technology, how does it impact the health sector?
Technology has indeed brought a lot of relief to medical practice, generally. In the past, patients needed to see the doctor face to face (physically), but with the advancement in technology, patients can interact and communicate with the doctor through various channels. With telemedicine, a doctor can be in the United States and interact with a patient anywhere in the world including Lagos. Technology has improved access to health with regards to consultation with a doctor increasing treatment opportunities for patients.

What is the true value of an Oligo synthesiser?
This is the first time we have had such equipment in the country. Economically, a lot of life science researchers have to import the design they have made either on their phones and are required to do some test diagnosis abroad. They pay in foreign currencies for the tests and shipping back to Nigeria, incurring cost and time up to three weeks. There’s also the risk of design errors, hence the process has to be repeated all over.

One clear advantage is that researchers can save time by sending that data and samples to NIMR. We will run the results and send back to them, regardless of the part of Nigeria it is being sent from, it is still better than sending from Nigeria to the US-China. Naira denominated payments will reduce the burden on the Naira and save some foreign currencies. Now the dollar is 500+ to the Naira, and you can imagine if someone has to look for dollars to send abroad maybe twice or thrice to be able to produce or even progress in one experiment. Perhaps if you pay in Naira, there will be less pressure on the researchers and the funds that are available.

What else is the Oligo synthesiser valuable for?
The Oligo synthesiser is useful in a lot of life science experiments, especially in genomic research, which is the engine all over the world, with regards to personalised medicine and similar initiatives. An instrument like that is essential to produce what we call primals and probes, which is an artificial part of a natural element.

So, they design the artificial part and get it produced by the Oligo synthesiser so that they can simulate the natural element. Take any virus for example and design a part of the virus and bring it back to use to develop a disease for example, diabetes, so that when you use that diabetes device to test, it picks that part of the virus and reproduces the disease. It could also be used to design a particular part of the virus and can look at whether a drug you are accessing can target that particular function.

How are you able to successfully measure and evaluate the context of programmes focused on care delivery and health system strength?
The ability to measure the strength of the health care system and its deliverables is in the realms of the social scientist and the monitoring and evaluation group who look at what the system can do, what is deficient in the system, and what the system is required by creating a timeline using a previous work plan that has been developed for the project.

Health system strengthening has to do with full capacity development, equipment, assessment, functionality and the special areas that can be incorporated into the system to improve the deliveries in the healthcare system. So that should be an ongoing process and access what has been deficient to determine where t to go in future.

What critical resources do you require for the improvements and promotion of healthcare in the community?
The critical resources that we at NIMR require from my experience are both human and financial. Human resources do the research, formulate the theory and go after it to determine if it would work or not. Because of this, a lot of funds have to be put into research to get maybe one very useful outcome or some negative that wouldn’t be useful. Then you need some financial resources to support the human resources. This is why we are excited about what MTN Foundation has done for us. This donation focuses on the critical resources mentioned earlier.

With the Oligo synthesiser, the human resources will be motivated to do more research and formulate more theories.

Also, with these two resources, one would require infrastructural support. One of the most important resources for instance is energy. So, we need to look for alternative ways of how to generate energy, and sometimes I believe that government institutions should be given special reach for electricity.

Sometimes we don’t even afford to pay for what we use and if there is a cut in electricity, a lot of things will suffer and waste. So I feel the government needs to do much more for public institutions.

The MTN Foundation has taken a step to support your work and the institute with significant donations.

Is this donation important?
Our experience with the MTN Foundation is the first and largest support we have received in recent times. What they have done is to improve and provide opportunities for life scientist researchers in Nigeria because a lot of them deal with laboratory experiments that require Oligo synthesisers, which the Foundation has donated to NIMR.

It may appear that this donation is to NIMR alone, but I believe it is for to all Nigerians and researchers in particular who will now have the opportunity of accessing it at a very short distance and time, and can also move on with their experiment as quickly as possible. Permit me to further use this medium to thank MTN and say that they will see the impact of this to the healthcare sector and the life of Nigerians at large.

How important is teamwork and collaboration in the medical environment?
Teamwork is perhaps the most efficient way to accomplish any set out objectives because people come from different backgrounds and bring different expertise to the team and they look at this from a different perspective. In the long run they are able to judge and come together with a decision that is capable of moving the project forward. There are days when an individual is the only one trying to work alone and looking for a solution to a problem. That would be his own narrow area of reasoning, whereas when other people are involved, there is an expansion in the scope and are able to see further opportunities that a single person may not be able to do. So, working together and networking has provided opportunities even for people of other nations that have not developed their own research capacity and work with other nations where research capacity have been developed, so as to learn theory or practical and also share practical resources they don’t have.

They can also go further to exchange visits and learn about individual differences in the area of disease epidemiology, and then help each other on how to solve a particular problem.

Who supports NIMR and how much support does NIMR get?
NIMR is mainly supported from the Federal Government’s budget in line with the country’s Health Research Agenda Priorities. Government support alone cannot suffice; hence so we rely on partnerships similar to the one with MTN, which is one of the largest supports we have received in recent times. We do seek research grants from international donors, which are competitive, which helps stand shoulder to shoulder with other institutes across the world, that is how we have been thriving.

Do you think the current health insurance system is affecting the medical field and the society in general?
Nigeria’s health insurance sector is still developing. Presently, it covers mainly people in Federal employment. There are some states that are developing their own, and there are some rudimentary health insurance schemes that the Ministry of Health is trying to pursue but they are all in early stages. It would have done a lot more if health insurance could cover a large majority of people in Nigeria, it will make a lot of resources available to hospitals to change equipment when needed and motivate people who work in the health sector. This is the system that has helped cases in the United Kingdom or what goes on in the United States and other advanced countries.

How does NIMR help in skill development and skill transfer to people of lesser skills and knowledge?
One of the mandates of NIMR is to provide a good and efficient research environment and training for people either from the university or other healthcare systems. We get a lot of requests from people, especially undergraduate students who want to do their Industrial Training with us to pick up experiences and knowledge in the medical field.

We also go further to provide opportunities for people in Masters or PhD programmes who may have enough equipment and expertise to complete such a project in their university or wherever they are coming from. So, we work with the Federal Ministry of Health to develop a lot of the structures required to understand and enhance the management of the healthcare system in Nigeria.

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