August 29, 2013

Regenerative medicine’ll drastically change lives – Ola Orekunrin

Regenerative medicine’ll drastically change lives – Ola Orekunrin

Ola Orekunrin


Very soon, patients with hitherto incurable or hard to cure ailments will rejoice if reports from researchers on stem
cells is anything to go by. Stem cells are described as mother cells that have the potential to become any type of cell in the body such as blood, heart, bones, brain, skin and muscle cells.

In this chat with Vanguard Learning, Dr Ola Orekunrin, a medical doctor trained at the Hull York Medical School in England and the Managing Director of Flying Doctors Nigeria Ltd, speaks on her research work in the field of regenerative medicine while on the prestigious MEXT Japanese Government Scholarship in 2008. This field of medicine, she believes, will begin to change people’s lives in a very drastic way in the next decade. Excerpts:

The Research:
“When I was in Tokyo some years ago, I was working with induced pluripotent stem cells in the field of regenerative medicine. So what we were doing was basically taking a normal cell, like a cell from the skin and then turning the clock back and inducing it to become a stem cell again.

All of your cells started off as stem cells and instead of trying to culture stem cells directly, we were working to taking normal cells and induce them back into what they formerly were as stem cells and then culture them so that we could start making personalised medications for people; so we can start using people’s own stem cells to treat them.

For instance, in the case of a patient that perhaps has leukemia (cancer of the blood) and have had radiotherapy, with low amount of blood-producing cells in the bone marrow, we could now reintroduce blood cells into the body through regenerative medicine.

Regenerative Medicine:
“It is a very vast and fast moving field and I think that it is a field of medicine and research that in the next decade, will begin to change people’s lives in a very drastic way. Pluripotent stem cells can evolve into specialised cells that ultimately can replace diseased cells and tissues.

How it works:
“If someone has leukemia, you can take cells from any part of his body and re-programme them to become stem cells like they were before. Once they are stem cells, they now have the potential to produce any kind of cell that is needed in the body. So let us say they lack white blood cells, hopefully, when the research is completed, those stem cells, ie their own cells, will be able to produce the white blood cells that they need or if they are very anaemic, these reprogrammed cells will be able to produce red blood cells that they need etc.

So that is what we are trying to do and hopefully, by the end of the research, it could work for burn patients. Let’s say for example, a patient sustained third degree burns, lost all the skin – epidermis and dermis, it could now re-programme skin cells to start growing new skin for the person. The research has not got that far but that is where we are aiming to get to.

Reverse Innovation:
“An important part of this is that I did not think it is something that necessarily has to be developed abroad. I think that these healthcare renovations I am talking about, are things that can be developed by African people to meet challenges in Africa. I have been speaking a lot with a few people from the World Health Organisation about a concept I call reverse innovation. I have also gotten a few articles published about it.

Reverse innovation is really when developing countries come up with ideas that are low-cost and very creative to solve problems in their own communities rather than the situation we have now where we hear that one hospital in America is doing something and we copy it or that one hospital in Germany is doing it and we try and copy it. Copy and paste is not going to work for Nigeria. The reverse innovation movement wants to end the era of copying things directly from the western world and trying to just put them in Nigeria and thinking that they will work.

Ola Orekunrin

Ola Orekunrin

The problem is that these countries that we are copying have a host of healthcare problems that they are not even coping with so why do we think that the right thing to do is to copy these approaches instead of developing our own? I believe that we as Nigerians, as Africans, really can develop home-grown solutions to our own problems and that they will be such powerful solutions that we will actually start exporting them to the West and they will have to copy and paste from us.

I believe that there are bright minds, creative doctors, researchers and healthcare workers all over Africa that can look at our unique issues, our population, poverty, poor infrastructure and develop innovative, creative solutions that tackle all of these problems and they will be solutions that can even be applied in the West. Let me give you an example, in mobile money, there are companies within Nigeria that can now allow you to go to the market like Oshodi or Balogun and transfer money with just a text message. Market women are beginning to trade using mobile money.

This service is not available in the best malls in the UK and America. So, in this tiny field, we have become leaders in this kind of technology and actually, you see western countries trying to adapt this kind of technology for their own malls and trading arenas. I think that if we can lead in the area of mobile technology, then definitely, we can lead in the area of healthcare and it is about promoting the concept of reverse innovation and giving people the confidence to save and work towards a goal and then moving forward with their concept.

Africans must arise:
“I think we have been so robbed of confidence as Africans. We’ve been told so many times that we cannot do it, we are not capable, that our accent is wrong, our packaging is wrong, our hair is wrong, our skin colour is wrong and when you’ve been told that over a period of decades and centuries, you begin to believe it. We have internalised that. I think it is time for the African to rise and start developing solutions and ideas that are exportable.”