Isa Hussaini Marte, a native of Marte local government in northern Borno, North East of Nigeria, is a world-renowned Professor of Pharmacology in the University of Maiduguri.
A fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Science and Nigerian Academy of Pharmacy, the multiple award-winning Marte is opening up new frontiers in cancer treatment. In this interview with our correspondent, he said he is confident according to the promises his ongoing research show, 'there is hope for cancer patients'.
Good afternoon sir, you are conducting a research on cancer treatment, to begin with, to the layman, what's that thing called cancer?
Good afternoon, cancer in Hausa is called 'Daji'. It is a sort of an abnormal growth of normal cells. So, it’s your own cells that become uncontrollable in form of their growth, forming tumour mass, like a boil, but sometimes is inside the body, it can be in the brain, breast, it can be on any tissue or organ in the body.
What causes it?
There are various causes of cancer. Like cervical cancer is caused by a papillomavirus. Breast cancer in some patients about 10% is as a result of mutation of some genes while in others as a result of environmental factors. The same thing with prostate cancer and brain tumours. Some times also environmental factors like chemicals, nicotine. Like smokers, for instance, are likely to have lung cancers. Also radiations... cause skin cancer. So there are a number of things that cause cancer, but one common feature of them is that as we age, some of our genes get mutated, and once mutated, become very active and drive the cells.
And one common feature with cancer cells is that normal cells die within certain period but cancer cells don’t.
But Prof., what’s the commonest cause?
There is no one common cause of cancer. But as we age, the chances increase, like in women, once they reach the age of 40, the number of cases increase. And in men too, prostate, as we age we get more cases. You hardly hear men before 40 having cases of cancer same with breast cancer in women. But there are few cases but usually age is the common factor.
What then is your new research about?
My new research is going into new area, because looking at our environment here, we have a number of medicinal plants. Most of this traditional herbalists have shown that some of their herbs are very effective. So, I am using this potential with my knowledge of cancer, to see whether I can find treatment to it. And I am focusing on four major cancers: breast, prostate, cervical and brain tumour—brain tumour because it is deadly. But breast, prostate and cervical cancers are very common here in our hospitals. So I am trying to find treatment to them.
So will you use these local herbs?
We don’t give the names, but, I will give you one which is called black caraway, also called nigella sativa. It is very effective, and even the Holy Prophet, Muhammad (SAW) had used it. In the Middle East, it is commonly used for all sorts of diseases. We have characterized it fully and it is very effective against brain tumor and also breast cancer. But there are other herbs, only that we have coded them because of competition, but we have told the herbalist who gave us these herbs that these are very effective—they know! So, if anybody wants, we have our consultant herbalist, they can really assist.
What motivated you to start the research?
I was in the United States for 20 years doing research and there we are looking at the molecular aspect of it. But when I came to Nigeria, I have noticed that there are a lot of cancer cases. So, it’s my own way of giving back to the society, and at least if we can slow down the rate of cancer mortality, or even get a cure, that will be a huge plus to our society. So it is the science that is driving me and the idea of really getting the treatment for these cancer patients, because for now there is virtually no treatment for most of these cancers.
At what stage is the research?
The first thing we did was to do a survey, with our consultant herbalist to contact others. We came up with about 54 herbs, used for cancer. We screened all the 54, we confirm the activities of twenty, and then we narrowed down to eight that are really effective—better than even the western medicines in the labs. But after that, we will have to do animal studies and, also try them on humans; that is called clinical trials. We haven’t done that yet!
Who is funding the research?
That’s a good question! I started it myself using my own funds, but along the way, we got ten million Naira (N10,000,000) from TEDFUND, through the university—institutional base funding. I presented my findings at the National Academy of Science, and then TY Danjuma became excited and he funded us with thirty four million Naira (N34,000,000) which is mainly for providing solar panels, inverters, batteries and also buying other equipment (which we have done), because in my lab now we don’t have this PHCN—we only run it on solar. So the funding is really from TEDFUND and TY Danjuma.
What are the challenges?
Our first challenge is this insurgency, because when I came to Nigeria in 2009, it was the beginning of the insurgency and we did most of this investigation 2010, 2011 and 2012. So insecurity was the first one. Second, funding but TY Danjuma and TEDFUND took care of that.
Third is even reagents. You don’t get authentic reagents in Nigeria. All of our reagent came from US or Europe, so that is even why I was able to do the type of research I want. Fourthly, electricity, which of course TY Danjuma Foundation took care of. Fifth is water, because we will have to go to University of Maiduguri Kidney Centre to get distilled water—but now we are trying to distil our water. The other challenges are lack of commitment from the university and also the state and federal governments; because a research such as ours we thought will be easily funded. We are getting nothing from the state and federal government and even the university except the one we got through the TEDFUND. Well, all these block progress. Thanks to Allah most of these are tackled and we are forging ahead though!
In general, what are the challenges such researches face in Nigeria?
It’s the same thing: lack of funding, lack of electricity because if you don’t have electricity 24/7, you can’t do such research. Funding is very important because the reagents are very expensive like a bottle of serum is 500 dollars. When I was in US, I had a lab of about thirteen people and we had 5 million dollars which is over 2 billion Naira. You could do good research with that type of money. But in Nigeria here, in terms of manpower, we don’t pay salaries of technologists and staff, one can do easily with 100 — 200 million Naira but there in the US, it is money driven. You will apply for grant, and be given but here, no funding, no electricity and the reagent are really of low quality.
On completion, it means, your ongoing research will change the future of cancer treatment worldwide? It means, there is going to be hope for cancer patients?
Absolutely, because if we can get one good one, and show it on humans, and it’s effective, that is a good tribute. Probably, it may even lead to a Nobel Prize, because there is no treatment for cancer except one type of cancer called CML (chronic maligeneous leukaemia). That, there is a cure because is a single mutation; someone discovered glivec, you can use it. Apart from that, there is no treatment! The best is early diagnosis before it reaches the malignant stage. That can be removed but for the malignant ones, no treatment!
What is the rate of death caused by cancer?
From last year, I have known of five women who died of breast cancer, right here in Maiduguri. And there are so many of them with breast cancer. It is a big problem! According to World Health Organization and other studies, if you combine the death as a result of malaria, AIDs and TB, it’s not even up to half or one-third of death caused by cancer. So, whatever that we get is going to be something that will really change the treatment of cancer.
Now Prof., this is serious, really. What should one never do to avoid cancer?
If you really want to avoid cancer, you shouldn’t get old—and that is impossible! Things like exercise, watching what you eat, eating lots of fruits and vegetables, these are all preventive measures. Do not smoke! Do not drink alcohol! Do not stay long under the sun, because of ultraviolet light—we found so many cases of skin cancer. For instance if you go to the market, people don’t have option, they stay right under the sun and eventually get cancers.
Asbestos have shown to cause cancer so avoid that. There are some old houses with asbestos, University of Maiduguri here is removing all the asbestos.
But good exercise, watching what you eat, fruits and other things help it. There are lots of plants and trees like baobab tree, has a lot of antioxidant, is very good. Others are spinach, moringa, these prevent not only cancer but other diseases. Nowadays people don’t do exercise, they drive in cars, nothing and that is not good. And when I say exercise, I don’t meaning running, even working.
Another important thing is people do not do annual exams; they don’t know their blood types, whether their kidneys and livers are functioning well. The earlier diseases are detected, the better because there remedies and once you don’t do that, it is death sentence. We believe that everything is destiny, yes, but we should not be reckless.
What is your call on other researchers like you?
We have to be focused, whatever research you do, there has to be translation. What are you going to do to the sick patient? Are you just doing the research for publication or you are doing it to find cure or prevent the disease? My advice to my colleagues is whenever they are doing similar research, they should think of the big picture; especially the patient, the society. Because already, sequel to human genome, we know the number of genes in human, about 30,000, you cannot discover anything more than these.
Some of my colleagues who are interested in vaccine, is very important, we don’t have one single effective vaccine against malaria or even AIDs, no vaccines, some of my colleagues can go into that. In terms of prevention, it is very important. For those of us in the field of cancer, yes we can do vaccine, but also at the same time have to find cure.
What is your call on the government and private sector?
The government should fund research. Unfortunately, Nigeria is a consumer society, we have to get into production. For you to be a producer you need to involve in research. Believe me, if I tell you, of all the pharmaceutical companies in Nigeria, there is not even one involved in research and development. I am really appealing to government and private sector to fund research; that is where the future is. It is even the source of foreign exchange. But if you don’t make the initial investment, you cannot find anything, nothing. 40% of the budget of some of these pharmaceutical companies are invested in R&D research and development.
We have lots of millionaires and billionaires, they can play a part. I was lucky to get funding from TY Danjuma and is helping. This year alone, I am graduating four MSc students and they have not paid a dime for their research. One year for these four to go to UK for their research, it is 120,000 pounds for tuition and maintenance—N60,000,000. And because of the funding from TY Danjuma, it saved the country this much. So my students especially in Maiduguri don’t have to go anywhere.
What is your call on universities regarding research?
Actually, the difference between universities and secondary school is research, not teaching. The primary responsibility of university is research, then teaching. And if you don’t change this mindset, we will always have problem of not funding research. Universities should spend their internally generated revenue (IGR) in funding research. We used to get money from the university in terms of faculty and departmental research, but now zero, we don’t get anything except TETFUND—and it has not funded any research in the last two years. Any university that ignores research will never get anywhere. University of Ibadan has been number university because of research and because of that it gets a lot of funding. So universities should change their attitudes towards research.