Hope of developing cure for cancer in Nigeria brightened with the landmark partnership last month between researchers in Nigeria and China to develop anti-cancer drugs. The partnership which is being championed by the Department of Microbiology, University of Nigeria, Nsukka and the Department of Pharmacology, Capital Medical University, China, is geared towards producing anti-cancer agents from marine elements. Both parties intend to explore Nigeria’s rich marine and terrestrial microbes for medically and nutritionally beneficial natural products and to promote research in the development of identified natural and other commercially viable products.
Explaining the rationale for the research, Professor Xiukun Lin of Pharmacology Department, Capital Medical University said “Inside the sea are bigger varieties of different organisms: plants, fishes, animals and microorganisms. All these marine organisms contain much larger resource for drugs. Since ocean technologies allow us to go very far into the sea, we should be able to identify and use marine organisms as a larger resource.” His colleague, Prof. Joshua Liao, Associate Professor and expert in cancer research and cancer drug development who led the team from China expressed optimism that both parties would achieve success in their research efforts to produce anti-cancer drugs from marine organisms.
We share in this optimism and believe the research will help elevate Nigeria to be in the forefront of countries which have made significant contributions to world cancer research. Indeed the use of marine organisms as pharmaceuticals and other useful products is not new. Certain drugs, including AZT (Azidothymidine) drugs used in the treatment of people living with HIV/AIDS and some anti-cancer drugs have been isolated from sea organisms while many others are in clinical trials in laboratories across the world. Studies have shown that over 50 per cent of drugs being used in the treatment of human illnesses are derived from natural products, the majority of which are from terrestrial organisms. But with the emergence of drug resistance in bacteria and the spread of devastating diseases, scientists have been compelled to explore marine organisms in their hunt for new medicines and other essential bioactive compounds. With Nigeria having a very rich marine resource, she cannot afford to take the back seat when such resources are being explored and exploited for medicinal purposes particularly when the study is to develop new therapies for cancer.
In medical parlance, cancer is a class of diseases characterised by out-of-control cell growth Cancer harms the body when damaged cells divide uncontrollably to form lumps or masses of tissue called tumours which can grow and interfere with the digestive, nervous, and circulatory systems. Till date, all treatments that kill cancer cells cause collateral damage to healthy tissues of the body and this need to change. Despite the billions of dollars that has gone into cancer research, the world is still waiting for a revolution in cancer therapy. There is therefore need for government, international organisations and other concerned agencies to support this study as cancer is a worldwide health problem.
According to the World Health Organisation’s fact sheet, “Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide, accounting for approximately 14 million new cases and 8.2 million deaths a year. More than 60 per cent of world’s total new annual cases occur in Africa, Asia and Central and South America. These regions account for 70 per cent of the world’s cancer deaths. It is expected that annual cancer cases will rise from 14 million in 2012 to 22 million within the next two decades.”
In Nigeria, cancer statistics are gloomy and this has been attributed to inadequate medical equipment, poor funding, high cost of treatment and late diagnosis and detection, among other factors. Experts say there are only four functioning radiotherapy machines in the country of about 170 million people. Available records indicate that cancer is killing Nigerians every day. Prof. Remi Ajekigbe, Consultant Radiotherapist and Oncologist at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, said Nigeria records no fewer than 100,000 new cancer cases yearly, adding that an estimated two million people are living with the disease in the country.
Though early screening and detection are important in cancer management or its prevention and should be encouraged, efforts to develop curative therapy such as the one being initiated by researchers in the two collaborating universities should also be encouraged. We are glad to note that the researchers have already made some headway in their research activities. As stated by Prof. Lin a few drugs from marine organisms, especially fish and microorganisms have already been isolated. “A lot of fish bones contain some peppipe (small protein). My department has also identified some peppine from bone and that is very good for cancer, and also for human illnesses. We can introduce our expertise, our knowledge to the Microbiology Department because Nigeria also has seas and some microorganisms.” We hope this collaborative study will produce outstanding result that will eventually bring succour to people living with cancer and help keep others safe from the disease.