Push For Africa Science

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"Research is weak because it is not supported by the corporate world and the Government," Dr. Masimirembwa says. "Most research projects here are sponsored by NGOs and other international donor agencies which means that we don't have a say in the research agenda. These are not sustainable and when donors pull out, that's the end of it." The Government, he says, must have a financial commitment to research to match countries like Malaysia which have invested heavily in research and are enjoying the benefits that come with rapid scientific advancement

Pan African legends–Kwame Nkrumah, Marcus Garvey, Patrice Lumumba, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and WB Dubois among other leaders who shaped Africa's struggle for independence and self-determination, all too often spoke about political, cultural and economic freedoms.

Absent and least talked about was the importance of science and technology in all efforts to concretize the Pan African agenda.  However, today it is more encouraging that African leaders are now conscious that science at least is one powerful weapon for total emancipation even though funding for research is still too low. It is worrying that Africans today are still trapped when it comes to drug development and optimal clinical use of medicines which are mainly imported from Europe, North America and Asia. In one of his major groundbreaking research, one of Zimbabwe's promising and gifted biochemist Dr. Collen Muto Masimirembwa discovered that a genetic variant unique in African populations made them to have a reduced capacity to eliminate over 30 conventional drugs from the body.

"When given at doses recommended in Europeans they might suffer severe side effects," he says at the African Institute of Biomedical Science and Technology (AiBST) which he heads here in Harare. For example, he says, some people using anti psychotic depressant drugs have a reduced capacity to eliminate these drugs and might require a 40-60 percent reduction in dosage prescribed in Europeans. For his pioneering work, President Robert Mugabe awarded him with a Certificate of Distinction in 1996 in recognition of his distinguished contribution to research in science and technology in the service of Zimbabwe in the field of biochemistry.

"Research is weak because it is not supported by the corporate world and the Government," Dr. Masimirembwa says. "Most research projects here are sponsored by NGOs and other international donor agencies which means that we don't have a say in the research agenda. These are not sustainable and when donors pull out, that's the end of it." The Government, he says, must have a financial commitment to research to match countries like Malaysia which have invested heavily in research and are enjoying the benefits that come with rapid scientific advancement.

"One problem in Zimbabwe and Africa, is that the educational systems are not about problem solving and product oriented," Dr. Masimirembwa says. "When governments commit finances to research organizations they must demand clear deliverables from such research activities which can transform society.�

He says it is improper for Zimbabweans to pride themselves as one of the most educated lot on the continent when there are no products to match their acclaim.

Dr Masimirembwa has an illustrious career and is the founding director of AiBST, an institute that is promoting the science and technology of drug discovery, development and optimal clinical use of medicines in Africa.

He was born in 1967 in the Mashambanaka area of Murehwa district, some 100km east of the capital. He did his primary education at various schools before proceeding to do his secondary education at St Ignatius College 1981-1986.

After passing his A'levels—senior secondary school—he enrolled with the University of Zimbabwe for a bachelor's degree, honors in biochemistry.

He received a Bsc. honors degree from the UZ in 1989 and a PhD in biochemistry focusing on pharmaceutical drug research in 1994. In 1993, Dr Masimirembwa also studied in parallel to the UZ one, another PhD program on molecular sciences at Karolinska Institute in Sweden which he completed in 1995. He has written 36 research papers which have been published in internationally refereed journals.
From 1996 to 1997, he went to Uppsala University in Sweden for a post doctoral fellowship in which he conducted research on malaria to find new drug targets.

He began his career in 1998 working as principal scientist at one of the world's biggest pharmaceutical firms–AstraZeneca phamarceutical company in Sweden.

After working for seven years in Sweden he decided to return home to found the AiBST and spearhead research in biochemistry. Broadly, this institute has since 2002 when it was registered, sought firstly to establish high technology laboratories at which biomedical scientists can carry out cutting edge research.

Secondly, it aimed to facilitate inter-networking between African biomedical scientists and mutually beneficial collaborations with the international scientific community.

Thirdly, AiBST aims to create prerequisite research and technical competence and business strategy framework for the birth of research and drug-based pharmaceutical industry in Africa. "In Africa we don't have research and drug-based development companies. We need to develop people who can start these companies which are R&D-based," Dr. Masimirembwa says.

AiBST is developing an intercontinental MSc. degree program on drug development and drug discovery which will enroll 12 students from various regions in Africa as well as others from overseas. This pilot program will start next year.

This institute has scored many successes and boasts of a Bio-bank and Pharmacogenetics Database with over 1 500 DNA samples collected from major ethnic groups in Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

"We need to know the genetic status of African people because this information is important in the drug discovery process," says Dr Masimirembwa.

"Drugs which we have in our shelves were discovered and optimized for use by European populations. We need to optimize the current drugs for use in Africa."

With a developed DNA Bank, AiBST is now researching into bio-markers for disease susceptibility.
Bio-markers can assist in predicting whether individuals will experience adverse drug reactions (ADR) hence help in the individualization of treatment.

For example bio-markers can be used to test for susceptibility to ADRs induced by ARVs such as Nevirapine and Abacavir.
Another major area of work at AiBST involves research on drug interactions on the major killer diseases –Tuberculosis, Malaria and HIV/Aids on which African patients could be taking more six drugs at the same time.

"There is an overlapping epidemiological distribution of these diseases. There is a big challenge here, where one drug can affect the effects of another co-administered drug," says Dr. Masimirembwa.

"This can result in either reduced therapeutic effect or  increased the toxicity of co-administered drugs." AiBST is now investigating the safety of combining drugs for these three major diseases. Dr. Masimirembwa says this problem is further complicated by the fact that in Zimbabwe just like elsewhere in Africa, people combine conventional drugs with traditional medicine.

"The safety and efficacy of traditional medicine alone or in combination with conventional drugs is not known. The information we get in our research will assist doctors and patients to know which combinations to avoid," he says.

In addition to this work, AiBST has formed a Molecular Diagnostic Unit. The unit currently carries out diagnostic tests to assist in the treatment and management of HIV/AIDS. Its current product portfolio includes (a) DNA based test for HIV infection which is important for early detection in children born to HIV-positive mothers, (b)HIV viral load tests to determine the amount of virus in the blood of an infected person. This helps to determine the effectiveness and or resistance to drug combinations, (c) CD4 counts which assist in determining when to initiate ARV treatment and (d) Therapeutic drug monitoring which helps in optimizing the dosage in individual patients to reduce adverse effects or increase efficacy. "There is need to motivate youngsters to take interest in biomedical science. Science so far has not had an impact and as a result many youngsters are opting for social, economic and finance subjects because they appear exciting and financially rewarding," he says.

Tsiko is The Black Star News’s Southern Africa correspondent based in Harare, Zimbabwe.

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