By Ayo Kehinde
Former Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, Professor Maurice Iwu has raised hopes that the deadly Coronavirus disease ravaging the world is preventable and treatable giving the groundbreaking proactive research his group, Bioresources Institute of Nigeria, BION, has been conducting on deadly diseases. The group gave commendable service that assisted the country greatly in the fight against the outbreak of Ebola in 2014.
Iwu who was a professor of pharmacognosy at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and a visiting scholar at the Division of Experimental Therapeutics of Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, Washington DC. USA from1994 to 2003 stated this during a briefing with Minister of Health, Dr Osagie Ehanire in Abuja on Monday.
Professor Iwu who currently heads a group of scientists under the Bioresources Institute of Nigeria, BION, stated that , “While the Ministry of Health, NCDC (Nigeria Centre for Disease Control) and our healthcare professionals are actively engaged in providing treatment and support for the management of the Coronavirus infection, it is important to indicate that the Nigerian scientific community are making contributions towards finding a sustainable treatment for the prevention and/or treatment of Wuhan Coronavirus, also known as Covid-19, as part of drug discovery programme for neglected tropical diseases, emergent infections and orphan diseases.” He said his body has been proactively conducting researches into infections but seemingly neglected diseases with a bid to offering remedies on prevention and treatment in the case of an outbreak
He recalled recall that when the Ebola virus infection broke out in 2014 “many people were surprised that our research group had an experimental lead compound that was identified 15 years earlier in 1999. And now with the emergence of a novel Coronavirus in 2019 as Covid-19 we had identified and patented a possible treatment back in 2015. It is very important that we must remain ahead of these emergent infections through research.”
Below is Iwu’s Full statement:
May I thank your Excellency for granting me the opportunity to brief you on our effort towards finding a treatment for the Wuhan Coronavirus or Covid-19. Honourable Minister, Sir, I am here to formally brief you about our drug discovery project, which has led to the identification of a potential treatment agent for Coronavirus infections. You will recall that on 23rd July 2018 you presented to scientists of the Bioresources Institute of Nigeria (BION) patent certificates granted by the Trade Mark, Patent and Design Registry facilitated by the National Office for Technology Acquisition and Promotion (NOTAP), an agency of the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology.
The three patents granted to us (NG/P/2015/84; NG/P/2015/85; and NG/P/2015/97) were based on discoveries from the natural products drug screening programme at Bioresources Institute of Nigeria (BION) focused on Neglected Tropical Diseases, Emergent Infections and Orphan Diseases.
The lead drug discovery project includes the chemical isolation and characterization of naturally occurring compounds and subjecting them to a battery of bioassays for the identification of potentially useful drug-lead molecules. Our approach is the use of a network of eminent scientists and leading laboratories to target particular diseases, especially neglected tropical, emergent diseases and orphan diseases such as Leishmaniasis, Ebola virus, Dengue fever virus, Chikungunya virus (CHIKV), Coronavirus and Tacaribe virus; and chronic metabolic diseases such diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular diseases.
Your Excellency will recall that when the Ebola virus infection broke out in 2014 many people were surprised that our research group had an experimental lead compound that was identified 15 years earlier in 1999. And now with the emergence of a novel Coronavirus in 2019 as Covid-19 we had identified and patented a possible treatment back in 2015. It is very important that we must remain ahead of these emergent infections through research. The other aspect of our work targets the so-called orphan diseases; these are rare diseases (diseases that affect fewer than 200,000 people), or disease that has not been adopted by the pharmaceutical industry because it provides little financial incentive for the private sector to make and market new medications to treat or prevent them, and/ or diseases that affect mainly the poor.
The drug discovery project was started at the University of Nigeria Nsukka where I was a Professor of Pharmacognosy and continued in America when I was a visiting scholar at the Division of Experimental Therapeutics of Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, Washington DC. USA (1994 -2003). It was reactivated in 2014/2015 during the Ebola Virus epidemic and we collaborated actively with leading laboratories from different parts of the world, which led to the confirmation of the anti-Ebola virus activity of three structurally characterized compounds from Nigerian plants which were subsequently granted patent protection by the Federal Government of Nigeria – (NG/P/2015/84; NG/P/2015/85; and NG/P/2015/97).
During the antiviral bioassays in 2014-2015 it was discovered that the compounds exhibited significant antiviral activity against the SARS – Coronavirus (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome – Coronavirus). One of the test compounds (BION -3) has an EC50 of 1.2 µg/ml in the Visual (cytopathic effect/toxicity) assay and 1.1 µg/ml in the Neutral Red (cytopathic effect/toxicity) bioassay against SARS Coronavirus. We have concluded arrangements with the Antiviral Program of the US National Institute of Health (US-NIH) to subject the compound to bioassay against the Wuhan Coronavirus (Also known as Covid-19, 2019-nCoV or 2019 Novel Coronavirus). On Thursday 27th February 2020, the Bioresources Institute of Nigeria, executed a Non-Clinical Evaluation Agreement (NCEA) with the Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (DMID), part of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), an institute of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is a component of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), an agency of the U.S. Government.
The lead compound is one of the most studied natural products in history with a remarkable high safety profile. Its pharmacokinetics profile and putative mechanism of action are being reviewed. We have under consideration possible dosage forms including a combination product formulation of the three agents (Rhygyfyn) described in our patents as broad spectrum antiviral drug, identified and developed here in Nigeria. We are set to introduce the products but our only limitation is finance. As you well know, science is a very expensive undertaking. We have been fortunate in the past to have benefitted from the generous support of governments, the United Nations Agencies, and philanthropic minded individuals and corporate organizations who appreciated the strategic importance of our corporate mission of conducting “Science for Humanity”. I will like to plead with you to use your good office to kindly appeal to Nigerians for their support.
Honourable Minister, it is important to note that Covid-19 belongs to a class of viruses that are very common, some more serious than others, the class includes the flu virus, SARS, and MERS. They are RNA viruses, which allow them to mutate easily and spread between species. SARS and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) Coronaviruses are more lethal than Covid-19. We are willing to make available the lead compounds and the phytomedicine (IHP – Detox Tea, NAFDAC listed) which contain the active molecule, a bicyclic diterpenoid lactone for possible evaluation by other laboratories with appropriate testing facility both in Nigeria and overseas.
Bioresources Institute of Nigeria (BION) is a member of the Bioresources Development Group (BDG), an independent biosciences research and development organization that cultivates, processes and produces medicines, nutraceuticals and cosmetics from natural products. BDG is probably the largest private research organization in Africa devoted to natural products research and development. Our focus is on neglected tropical diseases, emergent infections and orphan diseases. We operate four organic farms in different parts of Nigeria; the International Center for Ethnomedicine and Drug Development (Intercedd) at Nsukka; and a cGMP level Bioprocessing Centre at Umuna-Okigwe, Imo State. We have successfully researched and identified 16 lead drug candidates and developed 22 phytomedicines, including the antiulcer agent Syferol – IHP which was clinically evaluated at Nnamdi Azikiwe College of Medicine for the treatment of gastric ulcers, Physogen for the control of diabetes and Immunovit – IHP for promotion of immune health and management of cancers and chronic diseases We have authored four books on medicinal plants, including the highly cited “Handbook of African Medicinal Plants”, (Taylor and Francis, First Edition 1994; Second Edition 2014) and “Food as Medicine – Functional Food Plants of Africa”, (2016).
In collaboration with Rev. Fr. Anselm Adodo (of Pax Herbal Clinics, Ewu Monastry, Edo State) we have recently written a book on “Healing Plants of Nigeria – Ethnomedicine and Therapeutic Applications” (Taylor and Francis, 2020), which documents the extensive information on Nigerian herbs and presents to the global audience the rich ethnomedical atlas of Nigeria and the many healing plants of our people. The U.N.’s World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) conducted a case study on BDG for its pioneering efforts to mainstream African traditional medicine into modern health-care and economy in its publication entitled “Traditional Medicine as a Tonic for Development”.
The Economic Development Institute of the World Bank also produced a documentary video ‘Global Links: Nature’s Pharmacy’ that documents the research on medicinal plants at Intercedd laboratory at Nsukka. The essential point here is that we are not reacting to the current Covid-19 emergency but briefing you on our work on drug discovery for Neglected Tropical Diseases, Emergent Infections and Orphan Diseases.
The need for constant and continuous research on neglected tropical diseases, emergent infections and orphan diseases can never be emphasized enough in terms of advancement of science generally and medicaments, methods and practices of health care delivery in particular, as diseases and public health crises may occur at any time often without discernible warnings.
It is at the time of urgent and emergent public health crises such as epidemics and pandemics that the advantage of preparing for the unknown and unexpected in advance pays lifesaving dividends beyond what any sporadic or reactive measures can ever provide. It is in the light of this that we must credit collaborators and other donors for the substantial financial contribution made to our group in 2014/ 2015 for the development of prophylactic and curative Phytomedicines in the treatment of Ebola and other viral diseases. The wisdom of such contributions of funds to a private group of researchers was not always obvious until a crisis of the nature of the coronavirus epidemics and other pandemics that occur and the fruits of such public investments become openly and publicly apparent.
Based on the international collaboration approach, which I mentioned earlier, we have initiated contact with other laboratories to accelerate the bulk extraction, purification and isolation of the compounds. While the Ministry of Health, NCDC (Nigeria Centre for Disease Control) and our healthcare professionals are actively engaged in providing treatment and support for the management of the Coronavirus infection, it is important to indicate that the Nigerian scientific community are making contributions towards finding a sustainable treatment for the prevention and/or treatment of Wuhan Coronavirus (Also known as Covid-19) as part of drug discovery programme for neglected tropical diseases, emergent infections and orphan diseases. For this, we must remain grateful to the Federal Government under both former President Goodluck Jonathan and current President Muhammadu Buhari; and of course you Sir, the honourable Minister.
Thanks again for this audience.
Prof. Maurice M. Iwu, M.Pharm., Ph.D., D. lit.
Bioresources Development Group
Abuja. March 2, 2020