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A Nigerian discovered cure of diabetes? His drug is just bitter leaf! –Dr Shittu

What kind of background initiated you into the world of research into herbal medicine? I attended Nda Zako Primary School, Bida, and then went to…

What kind of background initiated you into the world of research into herbal medicine?

I attended Nda Zako Primary School, Bida, and then went to Federal Girls College, New Bussa, on federal scholarship. Afterwards, I gained admission into Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria where I studied Pharmacy for my Bachelor’s degree. Also, I obtained a Master’s degree in Pharmacology from ABU. I worked as an assistant lecturer briefly at ABU because of the policy that the best graduating student should be absorbed into the university. While I was there, the then Director General of the National Institute of Pharmaceutical Research Development (NIPRD), Professor Charles Wambebe came to Zaria and fished me out. He said ‘you have a better prospect in research because you are a young brain.’ So, I came to NIPRD in 1993. Since then, I have been a research fellow.

How are you coping with your research endeavours?

The Nigerian governments are not committed to research. They pay our salaries but the things you need to do research are not there. For instance, there is no electricity, no water, and then the chemicals you need to work with are not there. In 2002, I got the Ford Foundation National Fellowship scholarship to do my PhD. It is a special scholarship because they give it to disadvantaged people, people from communities which had no access to decent education.
Unlike the Commonwealth scholarship, you don’t have to know anybody to be picked. And, I must give thanks to Weekly Trust because I saw the advert in a small corner in the paper. That was in 2001. In the corner was an advert that Ford Foundation was offering scholarship to 14 students from Africa, and my sister pushed me to apply, that I was going to get it. I knew it will be competitive, but I just tried. It was a scholarship for everybody, especially if you have the background of being bright and being in a Pharmaceutical community. If they know you are from a rich family they will not give you.
They give it to exceptional students. Then, they train the person in any field he/she chooses. So, I chose to study ethno-pharmacology, that is, the study of medicinal plants, traditionally used by our people to treat diseases. The intention was to find out what really works in that plant and know if their claims are true.
During the interview at the Sheraton Hotel, Abuja, they asked if this has affected me, and I said, yes. Afterwards, they called to tell me I had been given the scholarship, and I should choose anywhere I wanted to study in the world. I decided to go to Strathclyde, Glassgow University, in the UK, where I spent four years to conduct the research for my PhD. Ford Foundation paid my school fees for four years.

Do you think you would have done it without them?

It would have been impossible. I did not have the money; my parents could not afford it. All I had was my brain.  I can’t thank them enough.
Did that lead to the discoveries you made?
Actually my thesis was on Diabetes Mellitus. I took Nigerian plants with me, those ones  that people use to treat diabetes. It is a chronic and incurable disease. And if you go into big pharmacy stores, even in the cities, only few would have insulin in stock. Insulin is the major life-saving drug for diabetes. 
Very few will even stock the tablet.  So if you now go to the rural areas you will not find any drug for diabetes. This makes people resort to what they know by going to herbal medicine to find their cure.  There is that desire to find alternatives. And people come with claims that they have found some herbs that help them.  I went to some of these traditional healers, especially in Nupe-speaking areas, collected about 28 plants which I took to Strathclyde, Glassgow and did some extraction. In the end, I just worked with one plant. That is the one that works to reduce blood glucose.
In doing the work, I was stopped from using animals because animals have rights there. When I gave this extract to the animals, they began to lose weight. Weight loss in diabetes is a very good thing. If they lose weight they fared better. Even the insulin requirement is reduced. And then the authorities were not happy that they animals were losing weight. I was stopped from doing further animal experiments and that was when I started using tissue culture. I used the invitro-test screen to test all the plants I brought.

Were you able to develop any drug to cure diabetes?

I was able to find the active compound that reduces blood glucose in one of the Nigerian plants. And that is where the work stopped. The university patented it and I came back home and since then I have not been able to do anything.

What did you need to do this?

To make progress, you will need a special laboratory i.e a tissue culture laboratory. You need constant supply of electricity. You need water, and for a long time, these things were not there.

What won you the Who Health Organisation (WHO) award, then?

In doing my PhD, it was all part of drug discovery, doing something that works from our plants. For the WHO award, I would also attribute it to my destiny. I saw the advert by chance. The WHO Tropical Disease Research was looking for two applicants from Africa who would learn new techniques. They called it High Throughput Screening (HTS). Even here, in NIPRD, when we extract plants we use the crude method where we fractionate. We don’t have things to test them with. So, with this new method, I’m going to learn, you don’t use animals again, you use the kind of technique I used abroad, in which I used cells. With High Throughput Screening (HTS) you can test thousands of compounds and extract in one day. You just put them through process, then the result comes out. It makes drug discovery faster, though you still use animals in the end, but not at the beginning. So you use fewer animals. I’m going to be learning that in malaria and neglected diseases of Africa. But the beauty of it is that at the end of the training, WHO is going to build me a laboratory here in Nigeria so that I can train other people. This will make drug discovery faster. Because malaria is killing people and not everybody has access to drugs, they still drink Dogon Yaro, so why can’t we test and see if it works like they do in China. China is one of the countries where traditional medicine has been improved upon. Antimeccilin, a malaria drug, was made there and we are paying millions of naira to get it here. So if there is a way we can develop this thing here, then it can be made available to our people. It will help.

 What made you go into Pharmacy?

I was a very sickly child; I was one of seven children and all the attention was always on me. I had an experience as a child. I was ill and an aunt brought me a local herbal remedy to drink. She said her husband has taken it for his ailment and my mum gave it to me. After drinking it, I started vomiting and my mum took me to the hospital.  When I recovered, I said it is good to know what these things contain because that my aunt’s husband died eventually. Whether it was the ailment or the drug the man took that killed him, I don’t know. But I did not want to be a doctor because I did not like the sight of blood.  I wanted to do science so that I can make discoveries.             

What do you have to say about Agbo and other herbs which people claim cure diseases?

When I see such things it bothers me a lot. This is because even in poorer countries, you don’t see people coming up with that until their claims have been duly proven. But here people don’t care. NAFDAC just asks them to go do test to know if this things are toxic or not. If they are not, NAFDAC gives them numbers which they parade everywhere. When people drink some of these things saying it cleans their system, I feel bad because if you want your system to be cleansed, you drink water.

You did your thesis on diabetes and lately diabetes has been killing a lot of people. What are the preventive measures that can be taken to reduce this?

Diabetes is a disease that does not give you any warning. It does not give any symptom until the blood sugar is really high. By the time you notice that your blood sugar is very high, most people would have had diabetes for over seven years. I tell people to eat well. Nigerians go into all sorts of restaurants, eat big pounded yam and eba. People should learn to eat moderately, eating vegetables, fruits, fish, chicken and also exercise.

If the necessary facilities were there, would you have come up with a drug to cure diabetes?        

Now that you mentioned that, I recently wrote a proposal to the World Bank. I wanted to go to all the six geo-political zones in Nigeria to do a survey and collect plants which are used to treat diabetes and formulate a suitable remedy. The proposal was approved and they are going to be giving me $750,000 to do that work.  It is a two-year project which will take us to different parts of Nigeria to get something of our own that will help our people.

I believe this training I am going for will also help. When I return, with the training I have undergone and the laboratory which the World Health Organization is going to provide, I will do more.  But that will be only drugs that can manage diabetes because there is no cure.

What do you think government should put in place to help researchers?

We need power, water. In fact, the basic infrastructure should be there.  When you are talking about research, it means you are searching and researching.  Also, maybe the lawmakers and government need to know the benefits of research. If you don’t do research, you are going to fail because you keep depending on foreign countries that will come and dump goods here. Recently, some companies brought some drugs they called Acymin/Antimycoline and people are suppose to take 24 tablets in three days for malaria. A few people who took them collapsed. These are drugs they make for themselves. But they don’t take it. They bring it to us. Even if we don’t pay cash for them we are paying with the life of our people.         

How has your institute been able to collaborate with traditional medicine practitioners?

 Nigerian traditional medicine sellers are very smart. When they bring their medicines to us, we would ask them to bring the original herbs. Some come with the claim that they have drugs that can cure hypertension, but before they come, they buy anti-hypertensive drugs and grind with the herbs. We tell them to bring the original herb, so we can test it and see if it works. When you tell them to bring the herbs, some don’t come back. But the real traditional medicine dealers will give you the plant. I have met them and I tell them I’m going to work with the plant. And they don’t ask you for any money because they know that it is from God, but some are very dubious and would want you to pay yet their herbs does not work.

Recently, someone said he had found a drug that cures diabetes. How true was this?

We have not been able to make headway. You know what that drug was? It is bitter leaf. There are so much lies in science now; people coming out with claims they cannot prove. I was involved in that project because some time last year the Raw Materials and Research Institute invited me to review the project.  And after three days I came out with my findings. The truth is, when you take bitter leaf it makes you feel hungry. When you feel hungry it means your blood sugar has gone down. It helps, but it really does not cure. The entire compound he found he never tested them.

Who inspires you?

Prof. Helen Kwanashie. She was my supervisor for my bachelor and master’s degrees. She was one scientist who will never lie. She taught me that. And she taught me consistency. She tells me whatever result you get in doing research, put it on paper. She is still in ABU.

Few times she used to say ‘Hafsat, if I sit in the same class with you, you will beat me.’ She taught me to be thorough in science. Then, my mother, she has been very supportive. She inspires me, too. Also, my present director-general has been very supportive of my course. Dr Uford Inyang and the former DG Prof. Wambebe discovered me.