By CHIOMA OBINNA
WHEN in March 2012, the Chief Medical Director of the University of Lagos Teaching Hospital, LUTH, Professor Akin Osibogun cried out that Nigeria lacked genetic testing centres, many Nigerians shared his pains.
The lamentation attracted a lot of sympathy apparently because it came at a time Nigerians were mourning the death of victims of the ill-fated Dana air crash. Another reason why it was easy for many to join the renowned Professor in his lamentations was the difficulties the families of the victims went through in a bid to identify their loved ones.
The lamentations have continued unabated, ostensibly due to the pains most Nigerians go through in a bid to get forensic testing, parental testing, newborn screening, and identification of plane crash victims, among other genetic tests.
The good news is that an end to the agony associated with genetic testing seems to be in the horizon in Nigeria. Those in need of genetic tests can now visit the new Molecular Biology Laboratory Centre, MBLC, at LUTH.
Genetic testing which is also known as DNA testing, allows the genetic diagnosis of vulnerabilities to inherited diseases, and can also be used to determine a child’s parentage or a person’s ancestry.
Forensic testing uses DNA sequences to identify an individual for legal purposes. This type of testing can identify crime or catastrophy/crash victims and rule out or implicate a crime suspect
It was also gathered that MBLC would help in the genotype of specific viruses to direct appropriate treatment. Others include the identification of oncogenes and mutations linked to different forms of cancer, diabetes, blood disorders, neurological diseases, design of medication and more accurate prediction of their effects. It will also assist in the advancement in forensic applied sciences, biofuels and other energy applications; agriculture, livestock breeding, bioprocessing, risk assessment, biotechnology, anthropology and evolution. Another proposed benefit is the commercial development of genomics research related to DNA based products.
It is against the backdrop of the enormity of functions that the MBLC would perform for Nigerians that an elated Osibogun declared: ‘’ I must say that I have been lucky in seeing our efforts come to fruition.’’
Continuing, he said: ‘’Following the sad incident of the DANA crash of March 2012 and the protracted delays that preceded the release of bodies, we set for ourselves the goal of developing the capability for DNA Biotechnology not only for the purposes of identification, but also for other very important purposes, including prenatal screening and genetic diagnosis. We also hope that in future we will be able to go into the advanced areas of gene therapy.”
Still giving a breakdown of what the Center would offer Nigerians, Osibogun said: ‘’LUTH was hoping to be the leading centre with capability to deliver qualitative care, research and development and with this Centre, Nigerians will no longer travel abroad for treatments while LUTH will be top of DNA biotechnology.
“With the establishment of this laboratory at LUTH, the NNPC/Chevron joint venture has unlocked DNA biotechnology for Nigeria and in particular, LUTH will be able to provide some services for Nigerians which hitherto were not readily available in the country. These include prenatal diagnosis of sickle cell anaemia, DNA finger printing (using biologic products to identify individuals), parentage testing, screening for bosom cancer gene 1 &2 (BRCA 1/2) and other types of molecular diagnosis.’’
Continuing, he said: ‘’If there had been a DNA facility in the country before now, maybe Nigeria would have saved billions of Naira lost to medical tourism annually. Critical observers are of the view that with the establishment of the Centre at LUTH, no Nigerian will go abroad for DNA testing and other medical treatments by this time next year.’’
The Minister of Health, Professor Onyebuchi Chukwu, who commissioned the Centre was confident that MBLC which was put in place by Chevron/Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC Joint Venture, would turn Nigeria to a destination for medical tourism in Africa.
“The availability of this Centre will have a significant impact as thousands of Nigerians who could not afford overseas medical treatment now have access to quality and affordable healthcare services, which will be provided by this facility,” he noted.
Another person, who is optimistic that succour had come for Nigerians, is Dr. Joy Irobi-Devolder, Associate Professor of Molecular Genetics at the University of Antwerp, Belgium.
Irobi-Devolder, who is the Chief Consultant to the LUTH/NNPC/Chevron Joint Venture said: ‘’I think this is a wonderful opportunity because we are now in an era of human genomic sequencing and there are so many genetic diseases. ‘’Now about 100, 000 infants are dying in Nigeria every year and this is largely because of misdiagnosis. Now the old technique of using haemoglobin blood count is actually not properly diagnosing the disease very well and this is why it has become important that this centre is now going to develop genetic assay that is going to correctly diagnose every sickle cell patient’’.
Lending his voice, Vice President, Policy and Planning, Chevron Corporation, Rhoda Zygocki, said: “Our partnership with LUTH in providing the Molecular Biology Laboratory Centre, worth N100 million, aligns with our commitment to helping to improve the quality of healthcare delivery in Nigeria”.
Our collaboration of NNPC/Chevron Joint Venture in the molecular laboratory project was a deliberate support to bring succour to Nigerians, who hitherto had to travel overseas for the services offered by such facility.
On why Chevron is so passionate about healthcare, she said: “As a company, Chevron supports long term social and economic development, energy development and human development are interwoven. The success of our company therefore depends on the success of the communities where we operate.
“We cultivate partnership in three areas to promote progress, in health, in education and in livelihoods. In pursuit of our corporate responsibility obligations, we view healthcare as a crucial social service that we should support the government to implement, as there can be no development in a society where people are plagued by ill-health,” she added.