‘How we developed new cancer drug’ – Professor Wole Soboyejo (President, AUST)

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GUARDIAN

‘How we developed new cancer drug’

THURSDAY, 10 JANUARY 2013 00:00 MOHAMMED ABUBABAR AND EMEKA ANUFORO FEATURES – FOCUS
Prof

The African University of Science and Technology (AUST) is the first of the Nelson Mandela Institutions (NMIs), established in Abuja, in 2007 as a centre of excellence in science and technology with a focus on African development. The university is making history with some of its research results. Top on the list is its Bio-electro-mechanical systems (BioMEMS) for the localized treatment of breast and prostate cancer. In this interview with The Guardian, the President of the University, Professor Wole Soboyejo, a Professor of Materials Science from Princeton University in the United States of America explains how the new localised cancer treatment works, while also listing other feats the university has accomplished. He spoke with the duo of MOHAMMED ABUBABAR and EMEKA ANUFORO in Abuja. Excerpts.

THE idea of setting up the University was to advance research for development on the continent. How far have you gone with accomplishing some of those mandates; what milestones do you have to celebrate so far?

In terms of advancing research, we have two key thrusts. One is to do research that can impact African development, research that addresses our needs in terms of health, in terms of water, energy and infrastructure.  And within that structure, we have targeted a number of our projects where we have groups of people that are working on funded programmes, mostly funded by the World Bank STEP-B programme, and also by the African Development Bank and some of our industry stakeholders. In the area of technology for human health, our focus has been on developing nanotechnology platforms for detecting and treating cancer. Cancer is the second biggest killer of people in our society. At the moment it kills 22 per cent of all people and by the year 2030, it will kill 33 per cent of all people. This is the silent killer. It is much bigger than TB, Malaria and HIV all put together.

The issues there are early detection. We don’t have good methods for detecting cancer early in our society.  The second issue is reducing the severity of the treatment that people get in the form of chemotherapy.  What we did was that we took some researches that have started when I was at Princeton University with the support of various funding agencies and domiciled the research here in Africa.

We have identified a new drug that you can synthesize; actually we use bacteria synthesis to make the drug. We have tested that drug and compared its efficacy against that of the standard drug that is known as Taxol, which is used typically in the treatment of cancer.  Taxol was a drug that was developed a number of years ago.  It is the most commonly used drug for chemotherapy.  Now, there are two unique aspects. Beyond having a new drug, the other aspect is using nano-particles to deliver the drug. So, we have actually synthesized those nano-particles here in Abuja. These nano-particles have sizes and shapes that are small enough so that when you inject them into the body, they go through the blood vessels, through the capillaries and attach specifically to the tumour site.  We have also done a work to look at the effects of concentration on the killing of cancer cells and we have shown that those drugs are effective.

So, the next step that we are now preparing to do is to do the experiment on smaller animals in a bioethical way. We have basically appointed a bioethics committee and we are now getting the necessary approvals such that we can show that the drugs shrink the cancer cells and compare that shrinkage to that of the standard cancer drug Taxol. Essentially, we are excited because we have something concrete that we can show in that area.

A complimentary part of this is that we have also designed and made the second generation of the device such that when the cancer is discovered and cut out, it can finish up any remaining cancer cells. You know you are never sure if you have taken out all the cancer cells, like breast cancer.  What we have done is that we have developed this device that is almost like a sponge that you soak in the drug and then when you leave it at body temperature, that drug such sips out, it diffuses out and then kills any remaining cells that are cancerous in that domain in a way that minimizes the risks of missing some tumour cells.

What makes the device a landmark?

What is exciting about it is that that second generation device has been made here. Even more exciting is that we have some works where we have embedded sensors that would allow us to monitor the release of the drug, and control the release without the candidate having to go through a challenging sort of operations to achieve this. So, in that area, we have been very focused, and thanks to the STEP-B programme, we are now at the point where we are beginning to sort of do the animal testing. Within another year or two, that puts us in the domain where we can do human trials, so that we can deliver on real devices. This is the key thing.

At the lower level, we have started some work with some people in computer imaging, computer vision, and one of the big issues, especially for women, is this idea of cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is increasingly becoming a leading cause of death in women. It is often caused by infection by the human papilomavirus.

If men are promiscuous, they kill women because, essentially, if you come into contact with women with the human papilomavirus, when you interact with your wife or your spouse, you transmit it, and eventually that becomes cervical cancer.  One of the big challenges we have in our society is that we don’t have check-ups.  In societies where they have checkups, the incidences have gone down. When I first came into contact with this problem, it turned out that there is something called colposcope. It costs about 30, 000 US Dollars, but it is actually a digital camera with image analysis software. We have shrunk something that costs $30, 000 to something that would cost at the most, $200-$300. When you just take that image, and you process that image using digital image processing, you can highlight the contours of the cervical cancer lesions and in that way, essentially, for the cost of a digital camera; you can detect cervical cancer at a stage where you can treat it.

In what way are you going to reduce the cost of such an expensive device?

We are working with one of our professors here in computer science, who is an expert in computer vision to create the algorithms.  When those algorithms are created in Germany, they sell the programmes to us for hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Our idea is to create the algorithms here and make these accessible for people doing detection and screening. The second issue for our women is screening. For the project that we are doing in that area, we are working with a doctor, a computer scientist and a designer to do that as our next step. Now, when you look at just those two areas, the nano-particle technology and that simple technology, if we, as a continent can implement that, we can reverse the cost of cervical cancer, breast cancer, and prostate cancer. Those are clear deliverables.  But the earlier version that I developed in Princeton is now being tested in India and it is actually successful. What we are doing now is that we are doing comparative testing with the existing system, and with the new system. Essentially, here, we are trying to develop the algorithms. Those are deliverables in health.

What are the other research products that the university has come up with?

In the areas of water, we have been working on these ceramic water filters for filtering water. Those filters can take out all the microbes in water. That can be contaminated water from a well, a borehole, or a stream, or a river. You may ask what the big deal is.  It turns out that this water is a big deal for our people. There was a time when we could drink the water from our tap. When I was a boy, we used to drink the water from out taps. No problem! Today, if you drink the water from our taps, you will certainly get sick. The question is what is the technology to use? We have developed the technology where you can use clay and sawdust. By burning them and mixing them at certain proportions you can make a porous filter that can take out all the microbes in the water.  We have now tasted it at a level where you can introduce this to individual homes.

Most recently, we have also integrated the filters into a small community based filter where you can provide enough water for a small community. In fact, our next step is to introduce it to our AUST community. So, we have a small treatment plant that we have developed in the lab, we have tasted the behaviour of that plant; we can basically produce up to a few hundred litres a day, which is more than enough drinking water, and it can purify surface borne or underground water to a level where you can feel safe drinking it. That is a second thing that we have been working on that we are now getting ready to transmission.

A third area that we have worked on is in the area of solar technology. In the area of solar technology, we have a two-prong strategy. One looks at existing solar technology and how you can adopt it to work for our own people. The other one looks at how we can develop the solar technology that our people can use in the future. In the area of the solar technology and how you can adapt it to our own needs, we have worked on some solar lantern strategy that is affordable for anybody in our society that essentially uses a small solar panel and can provide 12 hours of light and the students have demonstrated it at a cost that you will say is not more than a 20 -30 dollars per unit.

It is surprisingly simple, but it is something that is scalable and applicable to most people in a rural setting, and even in a rural-urban setting. And looking to the future, we have also, with the support of the STEP-B programme, been working on developing the light and solar panel of tomorrow.  So, you know, for example, today that the light that we use are based on LED, the Low Energy system, that gives you basically for a third of the power, the same light as an incandescent.  What we are working on is an organic LED. And one of our students, a guy by the name of Vitalis, has developed a method that makes an organic –inorganic LED that requires less power to turn it on.

Can you list other achievements of the university?

In the area of computer science, we have in this institution, students that are becoming experts at developing IT based solutions for telecommunications and also IT based solutions for facilitating learning.  We also have one of our students who have also won an international price for mathematics at an international conference, which shows you that the system is beginning to work in terms of the quality of the research.

I must not forget the Petroleum Engineering people.  The petroleum engineering within the last few years has become the key to showing that our local content in terms of educating people at high enough level, that the industry people want them can work.  We now have a programme, because we have a programme that is accepted all over the world, to work in major oil companies. So all the major oil companies are hiring our students and paying them as experts. Given the right environment, our young people are productive.

What is the level of support that you get for your work?

We do need help. We have been talking to people in the World Bank who have helped us tremendously. But it would be helpful if our government could come in. In fact, we are in discussions with the Minister of Science and Technology in an initiative that would bring some government money in. We are also in discussion with a number of companies. But this is an area where we need commitment.

How do you rate the level of funding for the science sector from African countries, especially Nigeria where so much talk has been on about using science for development?

There is really no allocation to science and technology that can fund innovation in Nigeria. The Science, Technology and Innovation Policy is really a good one that could help in defining some goals, but I think that we need to collect all these funds that we have created in different ways and bring them together into an effective science fund. We also need to fund a few centres of excellence, not just with infrastructure, but with the ability to do science and have clear deliverables. I think that one role that AUST can play is to create an environment of what I call “can do science.”

In a lot of places, we buy equipment to do science.  We give excuses for not doing science. But at least, in this small environment, if you come here, you can eat, drink, eat science and sleep science and we need to create that across Africa, across our continent. The science fund is a must. I think that rather than having 10 different funds collecting tax money in different ways, let’s assimilate all of these into one fund, where if you have a good idea, you go there and you get it done.

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Author of this article: MOHAMMED ABUBABAR and EMEKA ANUFORO
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