By Gabriel Olawale
IN recent times, former Chairman of Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, Prof. Maurice Iwu, has been in the news over his acclaimed research of a potential cure for the Ebola virus in a drug synthesised from Garcinia (bitter kola).
Iwu, a pharmacognocist has since been appointed member of a six-man Treatment Research Group inaugurated by the Federal government to research on treatment and possible cure of the Ebola Virus Disease, EVD. Iwu speaks about the Bitter kola experience. Excerpts:
I belong to a research group which was established around 1985. What we were interested in as at that time was medical condition or if you like you can called it disease hunting, going for those diseases that are not in the public domain, diseases that people don’t know about. We try to look for anything that can cure them.
And the US Military took notice of us and invited us to work for them, so for 10 years I worked at the Division of Experimental Therapeutics of Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, Washington D.C. on this kind of disease.
What we do is to look for new weapons to fight disease and my own field which is natural products in which we have to recruit people that I am to coach as we are now coaching people. As long as we live in the tropical environment, there are still going to be many more diseases we have not heard about. The issue is to see what we can use to tackle them.
Arrests virus replication
In 1999, our team then screened so many compounds. About 2,000 compounds against Ebola and other viruses which seems to have no treatment were screened and Ebola was among. We were lucky that a compound from Garcinia kola which is Bitter kola was able to arrest the replication of the Ebola virus. It was not a cure but that was a big clue.
Before that discovery there was nothing and as at that time there was no animal that had been able to withstand the virus. Like I keep pointing out, from drug development point of view, Ebola is not attractive. Malaria is even not attractive because even if you give malaria drug to all of Africa, it will not pay for the cost of development.
So such drugs have to be subsidised by government and so we moved on to another thing and that was where we stopped as at that time, but people continued.
A group at the University of Ibadan led by Professor Faronbi went ahead to publish so many papers after my initial discovery. Also groups in Japan followed me up on the anti-oxidant property of that same compound and they found out that it had about 20 times more antioxidant property than even vitamin E which is a classical antioxidant.
So there have been a lot of games going on. Why I say game is that science is like tennis, you play it out and expect return. So I have to sit back and heard all this from my colleagues from their own findings.
Another good thing that as it happened now is that the Minister for Health has set up a treatment research group which means that we are now beginning to be proactive.
We have the Nigeria Institute of Medical Research which is a top laboratory, so we should be able to fund it so that they can keep hunting for such things. Also we have good universities with able scientists.
We need to be proactive, part of our study now include disease of ageing and obesity.
I keep saying a scientist is like a tennis player, I say we stop but I didn’t say others stop. We have more data from other laboratories. We have been able to know more than we did in 1999. But not necessarily by my group, but we are now more or less, like collecting work from others and people have been generous. Some of our colleagues abroad who helped us to do tests at that time are now ready to help us test it in dosage form.
Why this re-test is important is that you can have a compound that is active and when you put it into tablet or dosage form it will lose this activity, so we have to monitor it up through all processes.
Lack of patients
What is even worse with Ebola is that those developments are at what we called phase 3 and that ultimately means that it has not been approved. It is not possible to have scientifically valid phase 3 trial for Ebola because you don’t have enough patients at any given time.
We pray not to have enough patients because on phase 3, we have to plan it, recruit patients and make sure that all the parameters to use are in order.
What happens is that even the two patients that America is helping, we are not sure that it is the untested drug that is given to them that is facilitating their recovery. So we cannot say because America use it and people of Nigeria were asking for it that why can’t America give us? They would have been very stupid to give us such product. Imagine if they had brought this drug to Nigeria and those people died, there would have being international outcry that untested drug was used on our people and that is why we have to listen to the Minister. The Minister of Health is like our personal doctor . Whatever he says we should do we have to do it.
Ebola in Lagos
Having Ebola in Lagos is unusual. The Ebola history that I have read so far has been in rural areas where there is unfortunate interaction between man and animal. But because of the incident that happened it shouldn’t have been in Lagos and it could have been horrible for such to happen in a highly populated city like Lagos.
For us in Science what is upper most to us in the whole thing is that we check with evidence. According to a European noble philosopher who turned scientist why is it that a dead fish is weigh more than living one and everybody said they didnt think about it and nobody bothered to weigh the fish to know whether dead fish actually weigh more than living one. So that is the issue about the bitter kola and Ebola for anti-viral infection. It is a known anti viral infection and immune booster and it has been used by man over a century. It began from ethnic use and into experimental medicine, it will remain in use until it is disproved that it is not active.