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Big holes in the lab

After patent tussles, the Kano-based company put its insecticide paper though initial phase studies and began marketing it for use against malaria, says Dr Abdulrazaq…

After patent tussles, the Kano-based company put its insecticide paper though initial phase studies and began marketing it for use against malaria, says Dr Abdulrazaq Habib of infectious and tropical diseases unit at Bayero University’s college of health sciences.
He holds up the paper as Kano’s experience in how collaboration between private sector and academia can strengthen healthcare and research.
Many more such inventions come from research, but few ever make it out of the lab and onto the market or the radar of potential investors, experts worry.
“It is never too late to recognize that there is a gap that needs to be filled,” says Dr Iorwa Apera, interim director of West African Infectious Diseases Institute.
“There are so many research findings sitting on the shelves of MPH [masters in public health] students and clinicians all over the country. We have graduates turning out research every day but the results are not published, are not known or we haven’t been able to get them to a level where they are shaping our policy and driving our health care delivery system.”
Health researchers should routinely focus on pharmaceutical industry but little love is lost between varsity labs and big pharma, whose industry sales stood at N203.6 billion last year.
Sales exceeding N236 billion are expected this year and projected to surpass N387 by 2018, according to Broad Market Index data for 2014.
Only 20% of university researchers interact with pharmaceutical firms, according to Dr John Idoko, Director-General of National Agency for Control of AIDS.
For counterparts in research institutes, interaction with pharmaceutical firms is less—only 7%.
At least 84% of pharmaceutical firms have no interaction at all with academia, according to a survey. For the 6% who did, interaction with academia led to new product development for only 25% of the time and enhancement of production process another 25% of the time. Half of all the interactions led to product enhancement.
Nothing for the country—certainly not higher gross domestic product or increased productivity—because researchers from universities, research institutes and industry hardly meet eye to eye.
Figures from IMF and the National Bureau of Statistics indicate Nigeria’s productivity lagged those of countries of similar economies and was inferior across industries when benchmarked against South Africa.
“This shows opportunity for research and development,” says Lekan Asuni, Managing Director for GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceutical Nigeria, with emphasis on community, social and personal services.
As yet, the industry imports nearly 80% of its requirements from Europe and Asia: local input is low, mainly in packaging and coding; high dependence on imported pharmaceutical ingredients push up prices, subject to dollar rate; and high cost of imported medicines in the face of low government health spending pushes up out-of-pocket spending, says Asuni.
Only around eight local pharmaceutical companies are in line to meet WHO’s good-manufacture-practice standards which could give them opportunity to play in global tenders market.
In both universities and research institutes, PhD researchers outnumber masters.
So what’s hindering research? Lack of drive affects only 24% of researchers, the National Centre for Technology Management found in 2011, alongside things as inadequate time, collaboration among researchers, water, power, journals, poor research assistance, exposure to conferences, obsolete facilities, lack of modern lab skills.
A lack of funding for research ranks 87% on NACETEM’s list of barriers to tangible R&D in Nigeria.
A GSK open lab project this year provides £4 million to fund research proposals with potential to better understand the unique attributes of non-communicable diseases in African patients.
But industry-wide funding is lopsidedly focused on infectious diseases, which “impact patients quickly in a debilitating way,” says Dr Robert Mallet of Accordia, which is helping WAIDI build its Nigerian partnerships.
Funding to research institutes targets cancer, tuberculosis, malaria and HIV. Funding to university researchers target the same four diseases—in addition to diabetes, sickle cell, asthma and high blood pressure. But malaria takes double or triple the funding for any disease on the continent.
 “There is not enough research being done in-country in Africa to pay particular attention about the kind of diseases and challenges faced by patients [in Nigeria,” says Dr Mallet.
“Those kind of things have to be attended to quickly, because they can overwhelm your healthcare system.”

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