December 20, 2022

Our potent anti-cancer drug awaiting clinical trials— Prof. Onyenekwe

anti-cancer drug

Help is here for cancer patients in Nigeria, as the Sheda Science and Technology Complex, SHESTCO, Abuja, has discovered a potent anti-cancer drug that is now awaiting clinical trials.

 In this interview with Emma Ujah, Abuja Bureau Chief, & Emmanuel Elebeke, the Director-General of the Complex, Professor Paul Chidozie Onyenekwe, disclosed that the organisation has also discovered an anti-epilepsy drug that will help sufferers live a normal life. 

According to him, SHESTCO is open to private sector operators who are ready to finance the clinical trials of the drugs and mass produce them with a view to making them available to members of the public within the shortest possible time.

SIR, we know that the SHEDA Science and Technology Complex was established as a foremost research centre to meet the scientific and technological challenges in order to boost the nation’s socio-economic development. How are you carrying out this mandate?

The establishment of the place was initially anchored on nuclear technology and then with subsidiaries—what were to be the subsidiary laboratories, such as the National Research Centres where you have biotechnology, biochemistry, physics, mathematics, and simulations, and these were expected to be advanced research centres. In the process of developing the place, it was discovered that these other centres are equally important, and therefore they were not just developed as subsidiaries, but as main centres. So right now we have the Biotechnology Advance Research Center; they take up research in all areas of biotechnology, that is: agricultural biotechnology, medical biotechnology, and industrial biotechnology, and a lot has been done in these areas.

Coincidentally, I was in that centre. I am the immediate past director of that centre. We have been involved in the production of disease-free, high-yielding planting materials. One thing that happened, sometime ago, was that Nigeria and other countries, through one of the United Nations’ research aid programmes, got some sugarcane from Brazil, and the delegations went back to their countries with three tiny plantlets. Unfortunately, when our country’s delegation from the Sugar Council came back, the officials could not maintain the plantlets. They later got information that we had what we call a bioreactor; we call it a TIB (temporary immersion bioreactor).

 How does it work, sir?

That means that you have a bioreactor, in other words, things that take place naturally now take place in a test tube, and you want to grow plants. For you to grow these plants, you use what is called a low risk meristem. When you get to the tip of a plant, if you check, if you try to open it up, you will be going in, and then you will see one small thing inside, like a needle; that is what we call the meristem. You cut that and then put it in a test tube or in a bottle, as the case may be, and then provide it with the necessary nutrients that it naturally takes, and then under normal conditions, which you now provide, it will grow as if in the natural environment. And so if you do that, you can easily multiply it. You moderate the hormone in the nutrient so that it is called a hormone, but as chemists and biochemists, we call it a plant regulator. They behave like hormones. This thing will either encourage it to grow or encourage the cells to multiply. So as the cells are multiplying, you are growing new plants. When they got wind of what we can do here, they brought the dying plants, and the first thing we did was, more or less, let me use the word, to resurrect them, and then after that, we multiplied them using what I have explained, and they were able to get as many as they wanted.

As a matter of fact, they could not come back to pick up all the plants we produced for them; they had more than enough. And their counterparts in Cote d’Ivoire contacted them, saying that they had lost all their own.  The Nigerians said: “We have more than enough, if you can come and pick some’’.

But they said no, if they picked some, they would go back and suffer the same thing.  The best thing was to teach them how we did the multiplication. And they now sent somebody, who came down, spent some time with us, and we were able to transfer the technology, and the guy went home happy and replicated exactly what we did. So that is just one aspect. So we have used that system to multiply plantains, not just sugarcane, bananas, and pineapple; these are some of the things we have done. And then there is one we are now doing: yam- a typical farmer will use the tuber as the seed for yam, that is a very wonderful system. The agriculturalists have discovered that you can get very many pieces from the same tuber; so you now have seed yam, and with that the following year, you will have tubers. 

That is wonderful. But there is what we are doing here, it is not just that you plant for your tuber, and then in the process, you can cut the stem, the nodes, each node almost gives you a seed plant. They just cut the nodes, and then, as your yam is growing, you take what you have cut and plant it, it will produce seed yam for you.

When you do this, are there organisations you work with, like the Nigeria Farmers Council or particular crop associations, to be able to mass produce this and make it beneficial to a larger society?

Like the Sugar Council, they have taken up that process; and now they have a place in Kwara, around Jebba or Ilorin, and they took one of our staff who has been with them for almost four years, who is helping them to ensure that is done on a sustainable basis. Annually, we distribute this plantain, banana, and pineapple to farmers, and sometime this year, we invited some farmers and taught them how they can do this kind of multiplication particularly; we discovered that it is easy for them to do this TIB type. We called it micro propagation.

There is another one we call macro propagation. In that case, if you have one sucker of plantain, you can cut it and replant it, and within a few weeks, you will have a slew of suckers.

Besides the agricultural sector, what other areas of science and technology are you exploiting to boost the nation’s economic development?

All I have said is that biotechnology is a unit. I haven’t said anything about chemistry or physics, and even within biotech, we have medical.

Any medical breakthroughs so far?

We have been able to get a particular drug that can be used for the treatment of cancer called prodigiosin, and the wonderful thing about it is that it is gotten from waste.

 What kind of waste?

You know, if you are going along the road now, you will see these polythene bags everywhere.  Our main target was to see how we could find an organism that could degrade those wastes, and in the process, we now saw a colour that was very unique, and we said: “What is this?” We saw this colour as part of the degradation product, and now that we know it is a pigment; we picked it up and used other methods to find out exactly what it was. We discovered that it was prodigiosin, and we asked ourselves: “What can this be used for?” At the end of the day, we discovered that it has anti-cancer activity. Then we conducted laboratory scale animal experiments. We found it to be very effective, especially for breast cancer, and then, to more or less authenticate this, we now used human cells. I will also need to inform you that, just as we have plant tissue culture here, we also have a human cell culture system.

This organisation was working on sickle cell drugs, at one point; are you on them now?

One major aspect of our work is what we call the drug delivery system. Usually, when you take drugs, the active principle, the whole thing you take, is not the entire thing, some are mere coverings or just a coat. The essence of this thing is to prevent either the active principle or the passive principle from being activated along the line. Then, when it enters, you have to increase its ability to be absorbed; some of these ingredients cannot be absorbed easily.

It may not be able to pass through the linings of the intestine, and therefore you need to add something that can aid the movement. When they pass through the body, there is a system that will break down the drugs, and the active principle will do its work. We are doing something like that, particularly to reduce this idea that somebody has to take drugs in the morning, every four hours, every eight hours. We call it ‘encapsulation’.  We encapsulate it in something, and when that thing enters, it will now release these drugs in sequence so that the body can easily take them.

Which organisation are you working with on the cancer drug?

The Federal Ministry of Health is aware of it.  The National Hospital is aware of it, too. What we are trying to do is called clinical trials; but everything about the theosophical evaluation, the efficacy, at least using animals and cell culture, has allowed us to ascertain that it is efficacious and not harmful. But the rule, the procedure have to be followed. Clinical trials are expensive. When people talk about what happened during COVID-19, how the vaccines were rolled out within a short time, there was a fund, that is the reason, and that is why it was fast. You didn’t need to use too much grammar, because many people needed immediate results.

 What do you need to do a clinical trial?

Often, one critical thing about clinical trials is getting volunteers, and these volunteers must participate with their full consent. not just because they are sick. If you try to do that without their consent, it will be unethical and criminal. One other thing is that when you are running a clinical trial, all the patients you are using become your own patients. You have to monitor them and take care of everything because if they are having headaches, you want to see if it is as a result of the clinical trial or not. So many things are involved. Some of the work we did for this project was sponsored by the World Bank, but they cannot sponsor clinical trials because it is a national issue. We are making efforts to get funding.

We all know the funding system in Nigeria.  Government is trying, but we are not getting enough attention in terms of the desired funding that we need to fulfil our mandate. We actually lack true entrepreneurs in Nigeria—people who can look at what you’ve done and decide to invest.Most of these things are driven by the private sector in other countries; some of them can even come to you and say: “Do this for me.”

Are you ready to partner with a private investor on this project and give out your patent when the trial is successfully carried out?

We will be happy and willing to release our patent to any interested investor in the Prodigiosin because when the patent is developed, SHETSCO will still get a certain percentage, and the moment you continue to get revenue, no matter how small it is, it will make an impact, and generate extra revenue for us. And not only that, but it will further open up the avenue for other investors to come and take up our research outputs. We also have an anti-epileptic and an anti-sickle cell medication.

Anti-epileptic drugs are herbal. Epilepsy is a medical condition and not a spiritual condition, just as sickle cell is. So the epilepsy drug is a herbal drug. My predecessor took particular interest in that epilepsy drug when he was the head of chemistry. He brought some herbs that had been used for the treatment of epilepsy, and we tried to work on them. We have really seen that it is a highly potent drug. Nicosan for sickle cell was introduced in 2010 using tugs of guinea corn. When people saw that it was in high demand, they started to pirate it. But today, we have another one that is more potent than that one, and we are trying to do a clinical trial of it.

Can you tell us what you have done at the physics centre?

We have done quite a lot. One very important thing we have been able to do is instal a speed limiter. Sometime ago, this issue of speed limiters came up, and people started complaining about it. The then Minister of Science, Technology, and Innovation, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu called some researchers under the ministry and challenged them to come up with something. Within one month, SHETSCO came up with this speed limiter, and after he critiqued it, we were able to produce versions 1, 2, 3 and 4. Now, the difference between our version 4 and what is being sold in the market is when a vehicle has an accident, you will be able to determine if it was overspeeding or not because it will record the speed of the vehicle in the last 20 minutes before the accident. So, if it is over speeding, you will see it, you just bring it out and know whether the driver was over-speeding. Another thing we are trying to do is build furnaces.

Usually it is like a lining inside an oven, which is imported, but at SHETSCO, we have been able to produce ours, which can withstand a temperature of about 1200 C.

What work have you been able to do on solar?

We are also working seriously on solar, using organic cells. And again, I haven’t been able to do a post-mortem on car batteries used in Nigeria because people complain that when they buy batteries, within a few months, they pack up. The post-mortem analysis we did showed that most of these batteries are not actually what they are said to be.

They are supposed to have about 6 to 8 plates, but in reality, when you open them, you see 2 to 3 cells, while they use glass to fill it up. And that is why if you just leave your traffic indicator or light on, the battery runs down. Again, most of our lead batteries are imported. We don’t recycle after use. At the end, we still export them for them to go and recycle and bring back. They attempt to maintain a system for replicating the battery.

We have been able to do something in this regard, but one major challenge we have is electricity. We are making an effort to get a 3D printer to help them get something.  As a research institute, we can only do research and produce models, and then people will take them up. Now, we have been able to recover the lead and also produce the active element in the battery, which is lead oxide. And then, we found out that there is another thing called lead-acid batteries. We have been able to produce this, and one good thing about it is that it has the tendency to reduce suffocation.

Are you partnering with FRSC on this invention?

Yes. What we are waiting for is segmentation.  We are also working with the Obafemi Awolowo University to mass produce it. We have finished the work. We have finished the work. We said, since we don’t have the facility for mass production, let them help us mass produce it and then with that, we will be able to distribute. The mass production is going on right now.

SHETSCO has a massive landholding of 400 hectares for the development of science and technology in Nigeria. To what extent have you utilised this space?

The land area, as you mentioned, is 400 hectares, or about 10 square kilometres of unfenced land. However, we have started fencing, which has been divided into four phases. At least the money we have now is enough to take care of two phases. We are hoping that in no distant time we are going to complete it.  Because the land was not fenced, people started encroaching on it, and the villagers, the original inhabitants, are also raising issues about compensation.  We have to deploy all manners of human relations, diplomacy, and communication skills. At times, it is not what you say that causes problems, it is the way you say it.

 So communication skills are very important, because every human being has an ego.  We are settling down, and within this, we have about 79 hectares for the technology park, which has also been partly fenced. Right now, UNDP is sponsoring the project on the processing of the common oil that is being used in transformers. Because the oil is carcinogenic, meaning it can cause cancer, it has been discovered that some people get the oil and mistake it for groundnut oil, and whichever oil they use, they use it to make Akara (bean cakes) and other things. When you put it in the oil, it can preserve the oil, the oil will not dry. It is one of the companies we are trying to build. The roofing is almost complete. We are almost done.  They assured us that by mid-year next year, it will go into production. When that company begins operations, it will collect used transformer oil and refine it so that it can be used by the transformers again, rather than throwing it away and allowing people of questionable character to use the oil for purposes that are harmful to members of society.

Are there other private sector players already operating or that have indicated interests in the technology park?

Cross Atlantic is also another PPP that is trying to come up. They said that if they had known earlier, they would have tried to take the whole park, but I said no. They hoped to develop the place and then have people come and buy franchises, which is equally good. There was a company that came in here before, they were given space; they put up so many buildings that they were not able to complete, and they were not able to break even before the company collapsed. Initially, when I came on board, I wanted to use that to start a technology hub since most of the buildings were already roofed.