Tuesday, January 29, 2013

It’s time to accelerate research in science

By GEOFFREY KAMADI

When Prof Alex Dodoo of the University of Ghana Medical School proclaimed: “There is always medicine for malaria in Africa”, one may have regarded his remark as a little exaggerated.

He said this during the African Media and Malaria Research Network workshop, in Accra, Ghana, in December last year.

There are two reasons why one might be inclined to take his statement with a pinch of salt. First, the most effective malaria treatment to date is artemisinin-based combination therapy. Artemisinin is derived from the sweet wormwood bush, a herb found in China.

Secondly, if such a medicine existed in Africa, why is it not readily available, given its potential commercial value?

According to the World Health Organisation, mortality from malaria remains highest in sub-Sahara Africa.

Prof Dodoo’s bold statement might hold water after all. The likelihood of that kind of medicine actually existing in Africa is quite plausible.

Extracts from the roots of the wild, creeping plant, cryptolepsis sanguinolenta, which is indigenous to West Africa, has proved to be effective against malaria even more than the artemisinin-based cure.

Its efficacy against uncomplicated malaria has been shown to be 93.5 per cent, in addition to being effective against diabetes and cancer.

The question then arises: why not exploit its medicinal properties? The short answer is what the professor terms as the “philosophical divide”.

Isolating active ingredients and standardising the medicine’s dosage requires lots of research and therefore quite a bit of funding. Therefore, African governments have no choice but to seek funds for science research in a situation where international funding is drying up.

Two of Unesco’s science programmes for the developing world are facing financial difficulties. The Science, Technology and Innovation Global Assessment Programme (STIGAP), meant to equip scientists with creative skills for analysing science, technology and innovation policies, has been stymied by lack of funds.

The same goes for the Global Observatory of Science, Technology and Innovation Policy Instruments programme.

Kenya stands to gain a great deal from scientific research. One area of that the country could tap into is in the interesting field of nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology basically involves the use of the minutest particles discernible to address a number of challenges, be it in engineering, medicine or any other field.

For instance, research is going on to see how nanotechnology used on camels in Nanyuki can help treat trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness). This is exciting, for it could open the doors for treating other conditions such as HIV/Aids and malaria.

It is discouraging to learn that Kenya might be losing its genetic wealth to other countries due to lack of research capacity.

For instance, the genetic sequencing of a tree species indigenous to Kenya is now being conducted by a Chinese company. This tree, fidebia albida, cannot be found outside Africa.

All what this boils down to is that the Chinese might come up with a product with pharmaceutical, nutritional or some other value, whose roots are in Kenya.

Mr Kamadi is a consultant with Media 101 Communications, specialising in science and development reporting (gkamadi@yahoo.com)

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