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Sam Achilefu: Kudos For The Inventor

By Editorial Board
25 July 2015   |   11:00 pm
AT a time Nigeria is in dire need of heroes, it is reassuring that award-winning scientist, Dr. Sam Achilefu of Washington University in St. Louis, United States, stands out as a pride to the country, and of course, the medical research world. The other day, before a crowd of distinguished scientists, colleagues and the university…
Achilefu with the glasses on

Achilefu with the glasses on

AT a time Nigeria is in dire need of heroes, it is reassuring that award-winning scientist, Dr. Sam Achilefu of Washington University in St. Louis, United States, stands out as a pride to the country, and of course, the medical research world.

The other day, before a crowd of distinguished scientists, colleagues and the university community, Dr. Achilefu amply demonstrated again that the spirit of relentless pursuit of new frontiers of knowledge is Nigerian. He was decorated for being the brain behind a device that could help transform tens of thousands of cancer sufferers around the globe into cancer survivors. He had broken new grounds in surgical treatments of the scourge by his invention of cancer visualising glasses commonly known as cancer goggles. Achilefu’s is the kind of spirit humanity craves, for advancement. For a man who has published more than 150 scientific papers and received more than 50 U.S. patents as an inventor, Achilefu’s recognition should challenge more of his compatriot-colleagues at home and abroad, and even himself to go a notch higher every time. It is the least all owe this country.

The significance of the award is worthy of note. It is given to a resident of the St. Louis area whose achievements reflect positively on the community. “Our efforts start with two words: ‘What if?’. These words may sound simple, but they embody the belief that each person has the potential to make a difference, if only he or she can take the time to understand the problem.” Professor Achilefu did just that as an expert in molecular imaging, molecular probes, fluorescence lifetime, spectroscopy, small animal and microscopy.

In recognising Achilefu’s intervention, the university said ‘cancer goggles’ are designed to make it easier for surgeons to distinguish malignant cells from healthy cells, helping to ensure that no stray tumour cells are left behind during surgery to remove a cancerous tumour. Moreover, the glasses could reduce the need for additional surgical procedures and the subsequent stress on patients, as well as time and expense. The system uses custom video technology, a head-mounted display and a targeted molecular display that attaches itself to cancer cells, giving them a ‘glow’ when viewed through the eye gear.

The scholar’s exploits could be better understood perhaps in the submission of one of his colleagues, Dr. Ryan Fields that “a limitation of surgery is that it’s not always clear to the naked eye the distinction between normal tissue and cancerous tissue.” Fields definitely knows Achilefu’s efforts having once used the goggles with melanoma patients at Siteman Cancer Center. Hence, he said: “With the glasses developed by Dr. Achilefu, we can better identify the tissue that must be removed.”

Achilefu, a professor of Radiology, Biomedical Engineering, Biochemistry, and Molecular Biophysics also functions as the Director of Optical Radiology Laboratory (ORL), heading an interdisciplinary and collaborative team at Washington University in St. Louis, a lab oratory with the ability to develop complete solutions from conception, implementation and validation to human clinical care. Achilefu must have been inspired in part by ORL’s philosophy of striving “to change the way medicine is practiced”. In his simplistic way of defining his invention, which is definitely a boost in surgical interventions, Achilefu, 52, said: “I thought, what if we create something that lets you see things that aren’t available to the ordinary human eye?” It was the first step to the breakthrough.

Perhaps more instructive in his inspirational journey to great heights was the inscription his father left on the wall of their home when he was only five years old: “When wealth is lost, nothing is lost. But when name is lost, everything is lost”. This to Achilefu has meant that “…one should be above reproach, that a good name trumps ill-gotten wealth. It sets a moral standard that we should follow in life.”

After receiving a PhD in molecular physical and materials chemistry at the University of Nancy, France, which he attended on a French government scholarship, and post-doctoral training in oxygen transport mechanisms, Achilefu moved to St. Louis, U.S in 1993 to join the nascent Discovery Research Department at Mallinckrodt Medical Inc. He is serving currently as a professor of medicine at the Washington University School of Medicine.
Undoubtedly, his new feat is laudable and says a lot about a human mind that has no limits and of a Nigerian spirit that is irrepressible in excellence.