In 1998 Nigeria capitalized on Africa’s rich biodiversity and knowledge of traditional medical healers and researchers alike to produce a sickle-cell drug. It was considered a major breakthrough in medicine. Before Niprisan there was only one approved sickle cell drug (Hydroxyurea) but it was bogged down with multiple concerns about its toxic and carcinogenic side effects on patients.
Three-quarters of kids who inherit the Sickle Cell disease are born in sub-Saharan Africa, and because most of these kids have no access to treatment, they die before their fifth birthday. There have been many efforts to develop low-cost methods to diagnose the condition and investigate affordable treatments to help reduce suffering.
Niprisan was one of the first herbal medicinal products in Nigeria to have been successfully developed, patented and passed through clinical studies.
The sickle-cell drug, produced by researchers from the country’s pharmaceutical research institute, the National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development (NIPRD) and a traditional medicine practitioner was to provide relief for the millions of people affected with sickle cell at a lower cost base.
According to the World Health Organisation, WHO, each year, about 300 000 infants are born with major sickle-cell disorders—including more than 200 000 cases in Africa. In Nigeria, about 150 000 children are born annually with the disorder.
Niprisan, which is a phytochemical formulated from parts of four different indigenous plants (Piper guineenses seeds, Pterocarpus osun stem, Eugenia caryophylum fruit and Sorghum bicolor leaves) is not a cure for Sickle cell anaemia.
It however manages the disorder, reducing the “crises” (the bouts of pain) without any serious adverse effects on patients. The recipe for the drug was brought to the attention of NIPRD by a local reverend, Paul Ogunyale, in 1992. The Reverend, who also holds a master’s degree, claimed to be using the herbal medicine recipe to treat members of his congregation for sickle cell anaemia.
The effectiveness of Niprisan was also studied at the Sickle Ceil Disease Reference Laboratory at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, PA, using transgenic (tg) sickle mice that produce human HbS.
The herbal medicine has been used among the Yoruba people to manage the sickle-cell disease for many years.
The NIPRD agreed with Ogunyale for further development of his recipe into an effective medicine for the benefit of sickle-cell disease patients globally. When Niprisan was produced, there was only one approved sickle cell drug – Hydroxyurea.
Lab test shows that Niprisan works by reversing sickled red blood cells and protecting them from being sickled when exposed to low oxygen tension. The drug was patented in the United States in September 1998 by NIPRD. It was patented first in Nigeria and later in the U.S. and 46 other countries. Seven NIPRD researchers and Ogunyale were credited as the inventors of the drug.
However, the locally developed drug would soon be caught up in a hullabaloo regarding its commercialization. The first issue was the lack of pharmaceutical capacity for drug formulation in Nigeria. It was reported that finding a commercial partner in Nigeria to scale up and manufacture of Niprisan proved difficult.
After years of production headaches that included overpriced products made by foreign companies, last June, Nigeria made a new attempt that will ensure that the drug would be available in local pharmacies. Its NIPRD finally signed a production agreement with Nigerian pharmaceutical company May & Baker for commercialization of the drug.
Header Image Credits: Face2Face Africa