MONDAY INTERVIEW

Prof.  Karniyus Gamaniel is the Director General of the Nigerian Institute of Pharmaceutical Research and Development. In this interview, the DG, who was recently inducted into the Nigeria Academy of Pharmacy, spoke on how research translates to economic benefits for Nigeria, the progress with commercialisation of NIPRISAN, a drug for sickle-cell anaemia, among others. Chika Amanze-Nwachuku presents the excerpts:

Many years ago, the news was all over the media that NIPRD had developed a drug for the control of the outbreak of crisis in people with the sickle cell disorder. What is the update on this drug? It is still not available in pharmacies.

Niprisan is a drug extracted from indigenous herbs that has been developed by the Institute for the prophylactic management of patients with sickle cell disease. We currently produce the drug at NIPRD, and it’s being given to patients directly meaning that they can’t be bought in the shops or over the counter. Today, we are at the stage of social production with the drug. Because we’ve had challenges with relicensing, as you know, NIPRD withdrew its license from the original licensee because of breaches which was challenged for a long time. And so, government issued a directive that we should produce and give to people who were already on the drug until we are able to sort out the license issue and then commercialise. We have sorted out the license issue and are at the point of commercialisation so that it can go back to the public very soon.

It’s important to state that the feedback which we have received on the drug so far has been very positive even before we went commercial. We have seen an uptake in the number of people who want to get on the medication because the word-of-mouth has been fantastic and people have helped us to spread the good news. In fact, the drug has been a so much of a success that even before the withdrawal of the license, some unscrupulous elements had begun to fake Niprisanwhich is why government directed that we produce at the Institute and give directly to patients.     

Do you think Nigerian pharmacists and scientists in general are conducting enough research using local herbs for solutions to diseases, especially those that are prevalent in this part of the world?

Quantitatively, I’d say that we are doing a lot but qualitatively, it is not significant. In terms of research, there is a lot of information on the shelves in many universities and research institutes including ours. However, the orientation of the average researcher today regarding products development and research needs to be re-examined. What drives interest in research is academic interest – getting a degree, publishing in journals and so on. We have neglected the industrial application of our knowledge in drug products R&D. And this is the real problem that we face. I think that we need to change our orientation and we’ve got to be engaged in translational research and products development. Research should be need-driven and not for academic purposes solely.

It is obvious that funding of research is a problem in Nigeria. Why do you think this is so?

To my mind, it’s a vicious cycle. For research, to be appreciated it has to make its impact on the society because research essentially feeds from what’s happening in the society and the usefulness of knowledge is in not keeping them on the shelf but solving immediate community problems. On one hand, government is not encouraged to see the impact which brings low funding. On the other hand, the researchers would have to justify the funds that are being used annually.

Niprisanprovides us a case in point. When the drug was produced and commercialised, government was very appreciative and they were ready to fund the infrastructure so that we could do more. Government has got to be convinced. No one will bring money from abroad to solve the research problems of our country. And so, the government has got to lead by example. Donors are also in the same category. Our research has got to change their orientation. 

How can institutions like yours help to whip up more public interest in research and development?

We should be doing a lot of things but I think that the core of what needs to happen is advocacy, doing translational research and solving immediate problems that the community can see and be convinced. Even philanthropists can come in, when they see how research is positively impacting lives in various communities. But very importantly, partnerships and advocacy are critical to this cause. Research is not perceived as what it should be. In more advanced climes, research is what drives economy and answers questions that help us to fast track our development, allows us to see what we are doing wrong and re-strategise for greater successes.

In developed countries, philanthropists and wealthy citizens regularly endow or sponsor research projects. But this does not appear to be happening to any reasonable degree in Nigeria. Do you think that research institutes in Nigeria are doing enough to draw quality attention to the importance of research?

Well getting results is not a function of preaching, it is by doing. Once we are able to demonstrate our capacity to do research that is needs based, I believed philanthropists as well as friends of the communities would participate in sponsoring research. I’d like to sound a note of caution though; do we really have so many philanthropists in Nigeria? Do we have an entrenched culture among the rich of giving back to the community? Some of the very wealthy members of our society don’t know how to use their wealth. I must be bold to tell you that they’d rather build houses in their villages and buy what have you – but the point is that when people are touched as a result of the work done by researchers, when there’s impact in our communities, one or two people would come out and show support.   

Some people complain that teaching methods in Nigeria also contribute to lack of interest in science and scientific research in general by many Nigerians. The opinion is that teaching methods, unlike in say the US for instance, are archaic and the teachers are often unable to encourage students to appreciate the essence of research. What is your view of this?

I don’t think that our teaching methods are to blame for the lack of interest in science and scientific research in general. The teaching methods and our curricula are very solid and can stand up to scrutiny anywhere in the world. It has served as an instrument to promote excellence, learning and knowledge. What the problem has been is the appropriateness and the availability or adequacy of facilities. When we studied, we had one machine to ourselves. Today, you only have classes where demonstrations have replaced the actual application because the facilities are not there.

I also think that the carrying capacities of our universities have become a big challenge in that there are so many students and facilities available for real good contact is very low because contact is very important in teaching. And so, it’s not the methodology, it is the availability of adequate infrastructure especially in the sciences. How can students practicalise their work or even appreciate research when there are little or no tools to work with? 

How do you think Nigeria can help rev up interest in scientific research?

Because of its strategic importance, we must devote a lot of our resources to ensuring that research thrives and grows. I imagine that we can set a commission, something similar to the Universities Commission dedicated to only research – for rating, accreditation, for standards, monitoring and evaluation and funding. As it is today, the funding system is poor. However, if we can warehouse all the research institutes in one place as opposed to the current system where they are scattered across ministries, it would change things dramatically.

What does your induction as a Fellow of the Nigeria Academy of Pharmacy mean to you?

First of all, I consider it an honour to be inducted as a Fellow of the Nigeria Academy of Pharmacy and I really appreciate the gesture. This has a lot of meaning and signification to me because it touches directly on my profession. And so, being able to join this elite club is a great honour that I do take seriously.

But I think also that it’s a great challenge. Before now, if I could sit and lament that fake drugs are ravaging our communities or that the whole situation in our sector isn’t good, as a member of this club, I can’t join that chorus again because I have a mandate and a responsibility to make sure that things work. And when they are not working, it would pain me personally and deeply. Hopefully, in concert with other Fellows, we’d be able to advice the government, industry regulators, researchers appropriately and also champion new frontiers for the growth and development of the practice of pharmacy in Nigeria.

How do you see your induction as a Fellow of the Academy impacting your work as DG of the NIPRD?

What comes to mind first is those coming behind me. It gives them the assurance that they can also progress and reach the peak of their careers. This is one thing important that I have discovered – once researchers or people are able to see their progression through they become more committed than if the future were bleak. I think also that being in this club and with my relationship with the Institute; a very strong bridge has been created. It allows me to leverage my network within and outside of the institute to set the agenda, manage expectations and provide valuable feedback on various areas of interest that can help make the institute stronger and better.   

Do you have personal research interests?

My personal research interest is in the area of products development. I have devoted a lot of my time even studying extra to enable me promote product development research in Nigeria. Also I am interested in behavioural research as a neuro-pharmacologist. My study of product development has been with a view to seeing how we can harness our indigenous and natural products for the good of humanity via drugs discovery. But most importantly, I also want to see that the administration of research has improved. The pharmaceutical industry is a huge sector that can dramatically change the fortunes of this country besides providing healthcare and wellness for the citizens and improving their economic status via increased productivity and overall national development.   

Do you plan to return to the classroom after your sojourn in the NIPRD?

Yes I would love to go back to the classroom but honestly I’d rather go to an institution that is dedicated to promoting research, in terms of research administration. I’ll love it there. This is because I see the pains and frustrations of many researchers, what’s missing, what’s broken, what needs to be fixed, setting up research plans and policies. Apart from the bench work, the immense impact that can happen if we get research administration right is huge. We should be able to go into the industry and support them with research. We should be able to support regulators – compliance, standards and so on – with empirical data. These are all evidence based strategies and if you need evidence you go to the bench where you’ll deploy scientific tools that provide direction. We need to get research administration right in the country.

The NIPRD has been in existence since 1988. What would you consider to be the biggest achievements of the institute so far?

Our biggest achievement till date is the fact that the Institute started from a store and has grown to become an institution that houses about fifteen specialised laboratories, which are all very functional. In terms of its mandate, I have to refer to the drug, Niprisan which we developed locally to licensing, commercialisation and it has been in production for about four years now. It has experienced some challenges but we are optimistic that in a couple of months from now, it would come back on stream fully and we’d re-license it to go out. So these are the two major feats that we’ve been able to accomplish as an Institute. 

What would you like to be remembered for after your tenure in the NIPRD?

I’d like to be remembered after NIPRD, which is pretty soon, as the man who brought in quality management systems and good laboratory practices. You see, irrespective of the quality of your research work, if it isn’t based on quality systems, its integrity would be queried and the results would be questioned. From my first day at the Institute, this has been my rallying cry. In fact, during my interview for the position, I made a strong promise to the panel to deliver on quality management systems for NIPRD. So that when results come from the Institute, such results would be respected globally and I am glad to note that I have seen that manifest already. It would interest you to know that we also developed about four patents of products during my tenure. I’d love to be remembered for these things.

Tell us a little about yourself. What are your interests outside of work? How do you relax?

I come from a very poor background but God in his mercy has enabled me to be able to contribute my quota to the development of our county. I am a Christian and married to one wife and have four children – two boys and two girls. My academic life is pretty straight forward, studied in the country and had stints in other countries. I see myself as an easy come, easy go person who enjoys socialising and making friends. I also play tennis.