By Chris Onuoha
Professor Maurice Iwu, a former Independent Electoral Commission (INEC) Chairman and currently the Chairman, Imo State government instituted COVID-19 management committee, is a medical scientist and majored in pharmacognosy at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Besides the all-important official positions, he is the President, Bioresources Development Group (BDG); International Centre for Ethnomedicine and Drug Development (InterCEDD), Nsukka, and Bioresources Institute of Nigeria at Umunna, Onu-Imo, Okigwe, Imo State.
In this interview, Iwu speaks, among other things, on the evaluation of local manufactured drugs and appreciation.
Whenever your name is mentioned, people mostly think of your participation in election management. But it turns out that you are a pharmacognosist and not a political scientist. How did it happen?
It happens sometimes in life that certain events define you or form part of the public perception of your identity, some taking place only for brief moments, even seemingly inconsequential roles, and others are so impactful that they cannot be ignored. I am a scientist. I was a professor of pharmacognosy at UNN and I have been a research scientist for most part of my life.
You have done some studies on pharmacognosy. Can you let us into some of these studies?
My work is on the development of drugs and cosmetics from natural products with special focus on neglected tropical diseases, emergent infections and orphan diseases. The drug discovery projects include chemical isolation and characterization of naturally occurring compounds and subjecting them to a battery of bioassays for the identification of potentially useful drug-lead molecules.
Our approach is the use of a network of eminent scientists and leading laboratories to target particular diseases, especially neglected tropical, emergent diseases and orphan diseases such as Leishmaniasis, Ebola virus, Dengue fever virus, Chikungunya virus (CHIKV), Coronavirus and Tacaribe virus; and chronic metabolic diseases such diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular diseases.
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My work is done primarily through the Bioresources Development Group (BDG), an independent biosciences research and development organization that cultivates, processes and produces medicines, nutraceuticals and cosmetics from natural products. BDG is probably the largest private research organization in Africa devoted to natural products research and development.
As I indicated earlier, our focus is on neglected tropical diseases, emergent infections and orphan diseases. We operate four organic farms in different parts of Nigeria: the International Center for Ethnomedicine and Drug Development (Intercedd) at Nsukka; and a cGMP level Bioprocessing Centre at Umuna-Okigwe, Imo State. We have successfully researched and identified 16 lead drug candidates and developed 22 phytomedicines (these are standardized and fully characterized natural medicines).
They include the antiulcer agent Syferol – IHP which was clinically evaluated at Nnamdi Azikiwe College of Medicine for the treatment of gastric ulcers, Physogen for the control of diabetes, Garcinia – IHP (encapsulated bitter kola) and Immunovit – IHP for promotion of immune health and management of cancers and chronic diseases We have authored four books on medicinal plants, including the highly cited ‘Handbook of African Medicinal Plants’ (Taylor and Francis, First Edition 1994; Second Edition 2014) and ‘Food as Medicine – Functional Food Plants of Africa’ (2016). In collaboration with Rev. Fr. Anselm Adodo (of Pax Herbal Clinics, Ewu Monastry, Edo State), we recently wrote a book on ‘Healing Plants of Nigeria – Ethnomedicine and Therapeutic Applications’ (Taylor and Francis, 2020), which documents the extensive information on Nigerian herbs and presents to the global audience the rich ethnomedical atlas of Nigeria and the many healing plants of our people.
The U.N.’s World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) conducted a case study on BDG for its pioneering efforts to mainstream African traditional medicine into modern health-care and economy in its publication entitled ‘Traditional Medicine as a Tonic for Development’.
The Economic Development Institute of the World Bank also produced a documentary video ‘Global Links: Nature’s Pharmacy’ that documents the research on medicinal plants at Intercedd laboratory at Nsukka. The essential point here is that we are not reacting to Covid – 19 emergency as such but the discovery is a result of on our work on drug discovery for neglected tropical diseases, emergent infections and orphan diseases.
In spite of notable people like you in pharmacognosy, most of our medicines are imported, especially from India and China. Something appears to be wrong with the development of pharmacognosy in Nigeria. What is wrong?
A typical pharmaceutical product consists of two main parts, namely the chemical entity responsible for the therapeutic effect called the Active Pharmaceutical Ingredient (API) and the essentially inert component that helps in holding the dosage form together and assists in its timely dissolution and absorption, known as the excipient.
Production of each of these key components involves a complex manufacturing process. Our pharmaceutical companies are involved in the intricate process of combining the two parts into dosage formulations. Usually of world – class standards. But, unfortunately, we do not have any bulk chemical synthesis facility to manufacture Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients. And that is the problem.
Fortunately, our organization, Bioresources Development Group, has completed arrangements to introduce the first set of APIs from local sources – one from fermentation of microorganism and the other an isolated molecule from a plant.
Herbal medicine is not recognized by the Nigerian government despite claims of potency by practitioners. To what extent do you think this is unhelpful to the development of our healthcare system?
That is not correct. Nigerian government through NAFDAC has registered several herbal medicines. There is even a Department of Traditional and Alternative Medicine at the Federal Ministry of Health. What is missing is its promotion and government’s genuine support.
One of the reasons herbal medicine is not recognized in Nigeria appears to be false claims by practitioners. Do you agree?
Your premise is wrong. Herbal medicines are recognized by our system. The problem is Nigerians’ psychological disposition towards anything local. What do you call false claim? If somebody claims that he has a cure and produces his empirical evidence, you can only debunk it by superior argument or counter evidence. An enclosure of the mind to anything we do not understand is unscientific.
Covid-Organic from Madagascar is generating reactions. Where do you stand?
It is an interesting development. When we announced to the world about three months ago that we have a treatment for Covid – 19 based on solid scientific evidence and patents, nobody even bothered to examine our data.
The pure compound we proposed is called Andrographolide. It is one of the most extensively studied compounds in nature. The plants that yielded the active compound have been clinically evaluated in several studies. In one of the published reports, Andrographis has been clinically evaluated about 33 times in full blown clinical trials.
A meta-analysis, indicated that the trials (when combined) involved 7,175 patients in cohorts on the use of A. paniculata for symptomatic relief of acute respiratory tract infections in both children and adults.
I will give you the paper to read for yourself. The A. paniculata therapy consistently shortened the duration of dry persistent cough, sore throat and sick leave/time to resolution when compared with usual care. The combination of Andrographis, Garcinia kola and Psidium guajava leaves in the already NAFDAC listed IHP -Detox Tea is an exciting product for the management of this pandemic. It is promoted as possible pre- and post-exposure prophylaxis as literature on them suggest.
Our govt has been blamed for not promoting local herbs like the Madagascar president is doing for Covid-Organic, whereas it is now promoting a foreign herbal product which possibly has substitute here. What is your perspective?
Are you satisfied that we have become the guinea pig for the Covid-Organic trial?
I do not know the full story. If NAFDAC is to do the clinical study and pay for it, then it raises many issues. Again, I do not know the arrangement.
You were reported to have developed herbal preparation for Ebola which you are also adapting in the treatment of Covid-19. What’s the update?
Ours is no herbal preparation. We shared information on a phytomedicine from plants and a pure Active Pharmaceutical Ingredient, a pure chemical entity. We did not just propose that we adapt the anti-Ebola products for Covid -19. No.
We actually tested the compounds against SARS Coronavirus in 2014/ 2015. Then re-tested again in 2020 against SARS CoV – 2, the virus that causes Covid – 19.
Again the compounds were active. Luckily, we have already a NAFDAC listed product which we offered to the nation as a possible treatment for Covid – 19. We are now making plans to subject it to clinical evaluation against Covid -19.
The clinical trial titled: ‘Efficacy and safety of IHP Detox Tea (a special blend of Andrographis paniculata, Garcinia kola and Psidium guajava), for treatment of Corona virus disease 2019 (COVID-19): a pilot placebo-controlled randomized trial’, to be conducted by an independent research group led by the VC of Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka.
The study is planned to be carried out in the NCDC COVID-19 treatment sites in Lagos, Kano or other suitable sites. The trial has been registered with the Pan African Clinical Trials Registry. It has also been approved by the National Health Research Ethics Committee of Nigeria (NHREC).
We shall undertake later the full clinical trials of Andrographolide, the Active Pharmaceutical Ingredient (API) which will be registered as a drug.
Does herbal preparation have future in Nigeria?
Yes they do. With the increasing realization that nature is the most efficient healer and with fewer risks, more people will embrace the use of functional foods and herbs.