The fight against the scourge of malaria in Nigeria appears to have received a boost following the mass cultivation of Artemisia Annua, a plant used in anti-malaria drugs, in Plateau State, by the University of Jos. With this landmark achievement made by the university, importation of fake malaria drugs into Nigeria could soon become a thing of the past, writes ISAAC SHOBAYO. MALARIA is a global ailment that knows no race or colour. It is mostly caused by mosquito which transmits its parasites to humans. With its great morbidity and mortality rate, few diseases can rank with it, especially in the Sub-Saharan Africa.
In Nigeria, malaria is endemic throughout the country. It has killed in thousands, yet various battles waged against it by government and its agencies have not yielded any appreciable results.
Currently, the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) estimate has put the mortality rate of malaria for children under five in the country at 729 per 100, 000.
Various drugs discovered for the treatment of the disease had similarly not been efficacious in Nigeria, rather the bacteria causing the disease has developed resistance to the drugs.
With the recent malaria drugs that are laden with Artemisia Annua, a plant used for the treatment of malaria, the war against the ailment seems to be over, but the plants are not cultivated in the country, thus making the prices of the drugs exorbitant.
However, one of the second generation universities in Nigeria, University of Jos, Plateau State, recorded a major breakthrough in the commercial cultivation of Artemisia Annua, thus rekindling the hope of Nigerians as far as obtaining cheap Artemisinin drugs locally is concerned.
Though the plant is not new to the world in the treatment of malaria, until recently, it was only known to be grown in China, India, East Africa and Madagascar.
The plant is used to produce Artemisinin which is the major component of combination therapies; it is used widely to treat malaria and is currently adjudged the best solution to the increasing resistance of malaria parasites to anti-malaria drugs.
It was learnt that in April 2008, University of Jos, through its Centre for Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering, wrote a proposal for funding under the Science and Technology for Post Basic Education (STEP-B) of the Federal Ministry of Education and the World Bank. The proposal was the commercial cultivation of Artemisia Annua and production of Artmisinin for the control of malaria.
Sunday Tribune learnt that multi-disciplinary scientists from the fields of Biotechnology, Chemistry, Pharmacy, Zoology and Plant Science in the university swung into action to determine the suitability of the plant’s growth in different parts of Plateau State where preliminary studies had shown that strains of Artimisia Annua could grow.
Briefing the press on the process leading to the breakthrough, the Vice-Chancellor of the university, Professor Hayward Mafuyai, said the investigation was extended to a thorough survey on the strain of plants that were best suited for hotter zone like Langtang South Local Government Area of the state where the university acquired 1,300 hectares of land for its agricultural biotechnology project.
He similarly added that a plantation for Artemisia Annua was subsequently developed in Gangnim and Langtang South Local Government areas of the state to cultivate the plant.
On the objectives of the study, Prof. Mafuyai pointed out that parts of the objectives were to identify and select adaptable strains of Artemisia Annua for various micro-environments, so as to mass cultivate and harvest the plant for a large scale production.
He said the objectives were also extended to conduct a survey on the prevailing species of plasmodium within the North-Central zone of Nigeria and to carry out a detail investigation on the various mutagens that was responsible for the emergence of new strain of the parasites.
According to him, the survey would cover distribution of various strains of anopheles mosquitoes within the study environment and the factors that were responsible for the emergence of such strains.
Other objectives reeled out by the Vice-Chancellor was to carry out a survey of various species of plant pathogens and biodeteriogens that could affect the plant which could reduce its ability to produce Artemisinin and to develop methods of eradication of such pathogens.
Towards realising these objectives, Professor Mafuyai said the university procured the Artemisia Annua seeds from abroad and began testing its survival and productivity on the Plateau, saying the studies included a close monitoring of the stages of growth of the plant to determine when the active principle is produced.
He said it also involved a detailed study on the effects of Artemisinin and its derivatives on the prevailing plasmodium species and malaria patients at molecular levels.
According to him, the scientists similarly conducted investigation to determine the anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory effects of the extract of different parts of the plant with a view to ascertaining the effective management of the bacteria infection that may arise in the course of malaria treatment with Artemisinin-containing drugs.
He disclosed that the outcome of the research was successful and confirmed the growing of Artemisia Annua for research and in large scale drug production, adding that after the research, it had harvested 283 kg of dry Artemisia Annua leaves and 48kg of Artemisia Annua seeds.
To confirm the potency and efficacy of these leaves, Professor Mafuyai added that the dried leaves had been tested at the National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development (NIPRD), Abuja, by national and international scientists, noting that Artemisinin content of the dried leaves grown by the University of Jos was found to contain 4.8 per cent weight.
He noted that apart from the breakthrough recorded in this regard, the outcome of the research is also an economic booster to local farmers in the area. “They can now grow the plant as a source of income for their families while helping to provide the raw material needs of pharmaceutical industries in the country.”
To complement the efforts of the university, Professor Mafuyai implored the pharmaceutical companies to partner with the university and local farmers to acquire adequate quantity of the plant and engage in local production of Artemisinin for the treatment of malaria, saying this would stimulate local pharmaceutical industries and bring down the cost of anti-malaria drugs and check the problems of fake drugs that are currently being imported into the country.
Explaining further, team leader for the research, Professor Chike Innocent Ogbonna, said the team faced a lot of challenges in the course of the research, noting that apart from the issue of funding, they had to traverse every nook and cranny of Nigeria until they finally succeeded in locating Langtang South as the most suitable place for the cultivation and production of the plants.
He added that it was a major landmark because Nigeria spent more money in procuring anti-malaria vaccines, disclosing that with this the money used for procuring anti-malaria drugs could be channelled to other areas.
Professor Ogbonna, who pointed out that the plant could be used to fight malaria, stated that China had been able to eradicate malaria by using the plant to spice virtually all the food in the country aside making tea out of it. He said Nigeria could as well adopt the same approach, coupled with the fact that the plant could be used to produce mosquito coils to kill mosquitoes and other insects carrying malaria agents.
A cross section of pharmacists, who spoke with Sunday Tribune in Jos, commended the authority of the University of Jos for the outcome of the research. They added that various forms of fake drugs had found their ways into the country in a bid to develop malaria drugs, thus frustrating the efforts of the government to fight the menace successfully.
A pharmacist, Bitrus Bityoung, said the plant could turn out to be a veritable source of internally generated revenue for the country, adding that its economic viability and potentials were enormous considering the demand for it across Africa and beyond. He charged the Federal Government to assist the university by providing it with a standard laboratory that would further help it to break new grounds.