Interview conducted by Niyi Odebode of Punch Nigeria Newspaper on August 11, 2009
The Chairman of the Institute of Genetic Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine, Ibadan, Oyo State, Prof. Gabriel Ogunmola, in this interview with NIYI ODEBODE, explains the institute’s goals and the need for Nigeria to invest in medical research and quality laboratory diagnosis services.
Please let us know your name and can you explain what led to the establishment of the institute?
My name is Prof. Gabriel Ogunmola. I have a distinguished career in Chemistry and the application of Chemistry in the study of biological system. I have done extensive research work on the area of haemoglobin, the red blood substance that carries oxygen from the lungs to the tissues that keep us alive. This has made us famous because haemoglobin is important. We do have pathologies related to haemoglobin, which lead to haemoglobin diseases. That has allowed us to use our Chemistry to understand the pathology of the haemoglobins and we have zeroed in on a very important research interest in the understanding the sickle cell haemoglobin disease in this environment. How we could provide long term cure or attempt to manage the disease. From this, we have started seeing the importance of using chemistry for doing many things in medicine, health care delivery. From drug, from plants, from understanding pathologies to accurate diagnosis. Without accurate diagnosis we cannot cure any disease. I retired from the University of Ibadan after a distinguished career; I held the first endowed chair in Chemistry in this country, the Olu Allison Chair of Applied Chemistry at the University of Ibadan, the first of its kind in this country. I eventually became the President of the Nigerian Academy of Science in this country. So I had ample opportunity for looking at science in a more holistic way, not only in the theoretical aspect, but how we can use it to improve the human condition and human life. It became a challenge for us to set up an independent laboratory. How did we do this? We first of all set up a Foundation, Science and Technology Development Foundation. Like any other foundation, it is aimed at bringing the fruits of science to improving the human conditions in Africa. What will it do? It will look for money and get involve in many scientific activities for improving human conditions. One of the first things we did was to establish this institute as part of the foundation. I was saddled with, being the first chairman of the institute, to coordinate its activities.
Professor Fola Esan, a Consultant Heamatologist whom I have collaborated with for many years joined me in the establishment of the Institute and we continue to work together.
What are its goals?
We have said that this institute will mentor and channel creative energies of those who will work with us as staff, research associates and graduates, into doing excellent research. We want to remove the artificial boundaries between one university and the other so that we will be able to bring all of many specialises and research worker together to work under a focus research agenda. We also want to build human capacity and demonstrate the effectiveness of increasing scientific capability for achieving sustainable human development and well- being in Nigeria. One of our objectives is to develop complex equipment infrastructures that will allow us to be able to carry out unique experiments, tests and diagnosis by bringing chemical instrumentation and informatics facilities to support the need of the wider community. Central facilities are not available at either the University of Ibadan, or Ife or Lagos would be provided here. If it is not available at the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, it should be here.
So this institute is to bring together those within universities and then establish an enriched laboratory with arrays of instruments in order to do what is called genetic chemistry i.e. chemistry for the study of genetic materials. We are all made up of chemicals, genetic chemicals for that matter. That is, chemistry being applied to genetic materials—human, plants, the food we eat and the environment—to practise laboratory medicine, which is the diagnostic aspect of medicine. The problem we face in Nigeria is how we can diagnose accurately. If we do not diagnose accurately, there can be no cure. Inaccurate diagnosis starts from as simple as blood taking. If I am to take your blood to measure blood sugar and I am to take 10 micro-litres of that samples into my protocol to be able to measure the content of sugar in your blood and the ordinary pipette that I use is not well calibrated, instead of taking 10 micro-litres, I take 15 micro- litres, then I am bound to have an error in diagnosis. The result that I get cannot be accurate. If instead of 10, I took five, the result cannot be accurate. As physical scientists, we start from precision of instruments and protocols. We start from accuracy of instrumentation and proper maintenance of equipment. Most of what is going on in diagnosis is centred on analytical chemistry, which is what we are doing here. We will also relate with other laboratories nationally and internationally. Other laboratories will still carry out their tests along their own routine and protocol. We will act as a quality assurance laboratory to other laboratories so that we will be able to help them ensure quality assurance of their results. For instance, we will send a sample from here and tell other laboratories to analyse it according to their procedures. We will compare the result we get to their own so that we will be able to advise them on what they need to change. The limitation that this country has had is precision. That is why people are running abroad to go and carry out tests on themselves or sending samples taken here by DHL and bringing the results back to the country. We think this is not good for the country.
How is the institute structured? Does it have the capacity to carry out research and tests that you have outlined in Nigeria, why has science has not taken proper roots in the country?
The institute is well structured because we are building human capacity. We are collaborating with other people. We run workshops. We have some staff that we have appointed as fellows of the Institute. The fellows of this institute could be at the UI or the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife or other Laboratories and Institute abroad. We have just appointed Prof. Nok as a fellow of this institute. He is one of the foremost cellular parasitologists in this country. He is at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. He would be able to spend time here for one week or more and relate with other people. He is expected to demonstrate his experience. We have appointed Prof. Durosimi into cancer biology. As a fellow, he is required to carry out activities related to the mission of the institute. He is supposed to give one lecture at least a year or run a seminar, train and mentor students. He can do all these using the facilities of this institute. There is a scientist in residence room. When he comes that is where he will stay. Prof. Oworu from the College of Agriculutre, Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ayetoro, spent his sabbatical leave here. We will bring people in a collaborative way to work. This institute is a melting pot of scientists. We have an international advisory board. Its members are from top schools in the world and experienced Professionals nationally and internationally. They have an oversight responsibility over the Institute. We must be able to take hard knocks from them. We have established endowed chairs. People can be appointed into endowed chairs in specific fields. The occupant of each chair will be expected to carry out research work in the area of cancer biology. They can work here or anywhere in the world, but they will deliver the result of his work here. They will be expected to deliver at least one public lecture at least in a year and conduct a seminar.
Prof. Theophluis Ogunlesi has been our major Patron. He has allowed us to use for the take off of the Institute the building at 14 Osuntokun Avenue, Bodija. We have created a chair in his name so we can have Theopius Ogunlesi Chair of Preventive Health and Tropical Medicine, and we are looking forward to eminent Health specialists to occupy this chair.
Since the establishment of the institute in 2005, how far have the goals been achieved?
We have run over five quality workshops. The first one was on quality improvement issues in laboratory practice in Nigeria. We have run a foundation course on diabetes, which is quite prevalent in Nigeria. We have also run a course on sexually transmitted diseases. The reason we did that was that everybody was talking about HIV. They have forgotten something like syphilis, which predisposes people to HIV. We also ran a workshop on stem cell research and its application, which is the in thing now. From stem cell, you can regenerate new organs. We have run a workshop on nano medicine and its many application in diagnosis and possible therapy. We are about to run a workshop on bioinformatics, which is how to use computers in biomedical research.
As a research based organisation what has been the focus of your research?
We have been looking at sickle cell haemoglobin disease in this environment. Today, people have been talking of one cure or another. They have been talking of Nicosan being manufactured in this country for management of Sickle cell disease and what is not suitable or feasible from the many claims being made. We have reviewed all available knowledge on the disease and we know what is suitable for managing sickle cell. We have investigated how we can go beyond giving only folic acid and pain management. People talk about stem cell transplantation, but how many people can be subjected to stem cell transplantation to cure sickle cell. Twenty-five per cent of people in this country carry the sickle cell gene and two per cent of the population have the sickle cell disease. There are things we can do to improve their lives. We have investigated and established at this institute things which predispose people to going into crisis. Infection is one of them. What physiological process that happens to the Sickle red cells during crisis? We do know that when crisis occurs, the sickle cells become dense. Because they are dehydrated. At the beginning of the sickle cell crisis either arising from infections or malaria and many other diseases infection. The question we can quickly ask ourselves is how we can reverse such dehydration. We have investigated that and we know that we can reduce the dehydration process. We can use a combination of some vitamins to reduce the dehydration, which means when cells become dense, we can make it less dense. The way we can make it less dense is to make water enter into the cells. We are trying to develop this finding at a very high level so that it can be available as part of the management of sickle cell. What are the nutritional needs of the sickle cell people? We have been looking at sickle cell only in terms of the defective haemoglobin. At this institute, we have looked at it in terms of what is happening to the total cell, apart from the haemoglobin that is inside the red cell. We have gained far more knowledge about the pathophysiology of the cell. Even when drugs are available, how do we get those drugs to enter into the cells? How soluble are those drugs? Nicosan, which they have been talking about, how soluble it is? Those are what we are trying to do. Iron transport is very important. We have a great understanding of that. We have understanding of how we can use nutritional supplement to help dehydration process of the Sickle cell. We know that every sickler like other normal people starts life by having foetal type haemoglobin. When he grows us, the amount of foetal type haemoglobin disappears. The goal of this institute, is to see how we can supplement the foetal haemoglobin when they are adults. We are looking at a local material that can increase the foetal type haemoglobin in the blood of patients. Butrate is one of the compounds that can increase the foetal type haemoglobin, Hydroxyurea also address the same thing but its long term effect in questioned because of toxicity. We have found out that pineapple is rich in Butyrate. We are zeroing in on it to get a high concentration of Butrate that could be useful for into sicklers as a food supplement.
In Nigeria, many research findings are normally confined to laboratories or shelves of researchers. What will you do to ensure that your findings do not suffer this fate?
This institute is set up as a result of many years of our cumulative experience in organised research at the University of Ibadan and many universities that we have been privileged to work at.. My colleague here, Prof. Fola Esan, is a consultant haematologist. We are both managing this institute. We have learnt that many of our works end up in publications and laboratories. We have decided that that shall not happen here. We have a research team. One important member of that team is a patent lawyer. As soon as we reach a certain level of potency, the lawyer takes over. We have promised ourselves that we will not allow our research to end in laboratories or publications. We will allow our research to develop into products and procedures for the improvement of livelihood of Nigerian and African population.
How do you fund your research?
We applied for grants. When an AS marries an AS, they are likely to produce a sickler. The thing first thing is to know whether you are AS or AA and to use that information . You can decide to marry or not . If an AS decides to marry an AS, that will be their decision. But, you should know yourselves. If they marry, they can subject their pregnancy to prenatal diagnosis. You can test for foetal haemoglobin from about six weeks and determine whether the baby is going to be an SS or not. That is what is called prenatal diagnosis. The facilities for it are here. We received a grant from a well known Nigerian to support us to obtain enzymes to be able to develop these prenatal diagnosis facilities at this Institute. The same facilities can be used for determining the genetic profiles of individual. We should all know our genetic make up for own use. It could be used for life style management, forensic analysis and paternity dispute as well.
How the laboratory which you will inaugurate on August 17 impact on Nigerians?
It is easier for Nigerians to check their tyres than to check themselves. We are all culpable. I am pleading with every Nigerians to learn about himself or herself. Do not be afraid. Check your blood pressure; evaluate your blood sugar. Find out the tumour marker whether you are incubating a tumour or not. Detect early. Early detection can lead to early cure or early management. We have equipment for such tests here. Once you know that your tyre is not well pumped, you will not be speeding at 100 kilometre per hour. Evaluate yourself in a laboratory and give the result to your doctor. Many Nigerians are experiencing prostate enlargement which is quite common among black. It has been killing many people. Everybody has been denying it until it become unmanageable when people like that die, what we read in the newspapers are that the wicked have done their worst, whereas they have been suffering a prostate enlargement for years. Anybody that is 50 years and above should go for a prostrate test. We have the facilities for carrying out this test in our laboratory. It is not every enlargement that leads to cancer. If it is likely to be cancerous, you can ask for an early surgery.
What are the facilities in the laboratory?
We have high precision facilities such as DNA testing equipment and automated haematology analyser. For example, what does DNA testing equipment supposed to do? Why do we need our genetic profiling? We all travel. When the Sosoliso plane crashed, a problem ensued in Port Harcout. People were fighting over the identity of the corpses. We need not fight over identity, if all Nigerians have their genetic profiles known and it part of our Biometrics but very personal for individual use. Even with the smallest bruise of the skin of a child, you can do his genetic profile; you can know whose identity from any genetic material the child. Apart from paternity, it can reveal the diseases that you are predisposed to. It has to do with genetic profile of your father or great grandfathers. Look at 9/11 in the United States, where they found a finger they knew whom it belonged to because they have the genetic profile before the event. That is a country that takes genetic profile very seriously.
There have been concerns about laboratory tests in the country. How can we ensure standards in our medical laboratories?
There are regulations for laboratories. We should follow the regulations. Laboratories that are not fit and proper should be shut. It is as simple as that. In Nigeria, we make laws, we must attempt to follow and obey our own laws for our own good
How can we drive research with government’s lack of commitment to science?
We have left everything to government. We have been asking for free this, free that. Whatever is free to you is costly to somebody else. We have passed the era of free this and free that. The private sector must intervene in research, but government should provide basic infrastructure such as electricity, good roads and potable water. The private sector should be more involved in research after all the products of research could be the start of new business for the private sector. What do we gain from all the money poured into football other non product sector and play? Football is good. I enjoy it. Let put equal amount that we devote to football into training our young ones and science, we would advance better.