Nigerian Don Becomes First African Fellow Of Academy Of Inventors.
A Nigerian professor of Biology at Jackson State University, US, Ernest Izevbigie, speaks on how his research on bitter leaf got patented as a food supplement for the prevention of cancer, SEGUN OLUGBILE reports
Bitter leaf is not new to many Nigerians. It is a vegetable that they know like the palms of their hands. Such people particularly relish it when it is made to count Egusi (melon) in a pot of soup. Yet, as popular as the vegetable is, some Nigerians would keep a safe distance from it because of its bitter taste.
But a Nigerian professor at the Jackson State University, United States of America, Ernest Izevbigie, has not only popularised the African shrub, whose botanical name isVernonia amygdalin, he has also conducted a research that shows that the vegetable has some medicinal value that can prevent cancer. He has also earned two patents, including one for the formula he created from bitter leaf – EdoBotanics – a dietary supplement that boosts the immune system and helps with the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation.
For his efforts, Izevbigie, who is now an exchange programme at the Benson Idahosa University, Benin City, Edo State, has won a place for himself as a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, USA. The NAI fellow status is a professional distinction accorded to academic inventors.
The NAI is a non-profit organisation and US congress-mandated to drive innovation emanating from universities, while also commercialising the innovations. NAI acts as catalyst, a mechanism through which inventions from university academia are translated into commercial values for the benefit of the society. It comprises universities in the US and other international institutions. It was founded in 2010 to, among other functions, recognise and encourage invention, enhance feasibility of academy and innovation, and translate the inventions of members to benefit society.
The founders wanted to recognise top scientists and innovators in the world. With his new status, Izevbigie has become the number 101 researcher selected and the first Nigerian and the only African on the NAI fellowship.
According the Jackson State University’s bulletin, NewsRoom, Izevbigie’s election to NAI Fellow status is a recognition of his high professional distinction. “It is accorded to academic inventors who have demonstrated a highly prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development and the welfare of society,” JSU states.
The 101 innovators elected to NAI fellow status represent 54 universities and non-profit research institutes. Together, they hold more than 3,200 US patents. Included in the charter class are eight Nobel laureates, two fellows of the Royal Society, 12 presidents of research universities and non-profit research institutes, 50 members of national academies (National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine), 11 inductees of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, three recipients of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, four recipients of the National Medal of Science, and 29 American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellows, among other awards and distinctions.
The NAI Charter Fellows were recognised in a full-page advertisement in The Chronicle of Higher Education on January 18, in the January 2013 issue of Inventors Digest, and in a future issue of Technology and Innovation – Proceedings of the National Academy of Inventors.
Academic inventors and innovators elected to the rank of NAI Charter Fellow were nominated by their peers for outstanding contributions to innovation in areas such as patents and licensing, innovative discovery and technology, significant impact on society, as well as support and enhancement of innovation.
In a chat with our correspondent, Izevbigie says the invention is a translation of research findings on bitter leaf.
“We have done some work and it obtained a US patent, including patent in Nigeria. We have translated those patents into a product that is now commercially available in US and Nigeria. It is approved by NAFDAC,” he says.
Why did he centre his research on an African plant? Izevbigie, who has been appointed as the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the BIU, says, “Africa has natural products in abundance. It has been estimated that more than 90 per cent of medicinal plants in the world are in Africa. To support that, you look at even the conventional therapy. The World Health Organisation has estimated that the history of more than 75 per cent of the conventional drugs can be traced back to natural products. Basically, what the manufacturers do is that they extract, purify and modify the herbs, the original products are from plants. We have 90 per cent. It makes sense to me to develop what we have rather than depend on the western world to come and do things for us.”
The don, who recalls that he had used bitter leaf as a little boy, adds that he was motivated because he knew from then that a lot of his people in Edo State consumed the vegetable for its medicinal properties. “I used it when I had stomach problems,” he says.
On how the reaserch was carried out, he explains, “During the research, we had some breast cancer cells, which we exposed to extracts of this Vernonia amygdalina, and we observed that it inhibited the growth of the cells. That was the first test. This observation was made around 2000, and around 2001. We sought provisional patent, and it was granted in 2003. It was noted that we were the first to make that observation – patents are not given to an idea that already exists,” he explains.
He stresses that at NAI, almost everyone has a patent.
“It is an intellectual property. It’s one thing to get patent, but there are several patents that have remained on the shelf till they expired. A patent lasts for 18 years before it expires.
“The intellectual property belongs to us and is protected by the patent. When other people use that technology, it is considered an infringement, and you can sue them. After securing the patent, we still had to work and find a delivery mechanism. That is why when you do that, it creates an opportunity to put Nigeria and Africa on the world map.
“That is what we should be doing – not just talking. There is nothing wrong with the big fancy vocabulary but at the end, we need to be able to translate what we have learnt to students in the classroom, then into commodity and services demand in Nigeria. In that way, we will create employment. That is the essence of university education: to be able to do certain things to serve man purpose.”
Asked what the benefits of the research breakthrough are to Nigeria, Izevbigie says, “I will say the benefits are huge. We have it commercially available and some people are using it for different health benefits. It is competitively priced and nobody is complaining about it. Then in the area of employment, we have people working at our cancer centre, some are growing the product. And whether for those involved in packaging or delivery of the product, employment is being generated. That is the economic benefit.
“Let me state that this is not a cure. A cure is when you apply something and the ailment disappears and does not come back. Whether it is cancer or diabetes, it removes it. But there is no guarantee that it’s not going to come back. If it comes back, then it’s not a cure. The product is food-based, and I think it should be referred to as a food supplement, for the management of a medical condition.”
The researcher would not want to be classified among people who make unnecessary claims. According to him, his product has been researched since 13 years ago. The findings and all the health benefits that he has reported have been corroborated by different universities in different parts of the world.
“Some of our universities, including University of Ibadan and University of Nigeria School of Medicine, have also confirmed our claims to be true.
“As far as regulations are concerned, as far as NAFDAC is concerned, because it’s from natural products, it’s classified as nutriceutical. Nutriceutical is different from pharmaceutical. It is a nutrient and medicine so to speak. It is something you can eat that also has medicinal benefits, a food supplement,” he says.
To ensure the massive production of the food supplement, Izevbigie says, he is already discussing with pharmaceutical companies to decide whether to start making it a full drug. “We know the active components of this stuff, and we can make it into a drug. As far as the FDA or NAFDAC is concerned, that process of taking something from its natural state and making it into a synthetic medicine is called drug discovery. At that time, we can call it a cure, because by that time, by law, it qualifies to be called a drug. Cancer can be treated, it can go into remission, but I will say that we have treatment for it. It can be used for the prevention of cancer for people who have high risk and can also be used for therapy,” he adds.
But is he saying that bitter leaf can prevent cancer? The researcher says, “Bitter leaf is a vegetable, though very bitter, and people eat it a lot. Such people will stand a low chance of getting cancer. But we have formulated the medicine in such a way that you don’t need to eat a lot to get the health benefits.”
Source : Punch NG