Chikwe Ihekweazu, MBBS, MPHMonday, June 9, 2003


Nigerian Newspaper, The THISDAY Newspapers, one of the highest circulating newspapers in Nigeria, on 05/06/03 carried as its HEADLINE article "Diabetes: US Confirms Breakthrough By Nigerian". My excitement knew no bounds as I read this. However, as I read on, scepticism developed when I came to the statement "Nelson had been granted a United States patent titled 'Medicament for the Treatment of Diabetes,' a feat which has raised hopes for more than 400 million sufferers of the disease worldwide".... excited (but with butterflies in my tummy after reading the word "patent")...off I went to the internet...to the website of the UNITED STATES PATENT AND TRADEMARK OFFICE https://www.uspto.gov/ ...typed in the name of my colleague Dr. Louis Obyo Obyo Nelson.

I indeed came up with his patent. (It is in the public domain, and anyone with Internet access can do the same). It says the new substance is; A series of compounds of general structure I and metal salts thereof. These compounds are useful in the treatment of diabetes mellitus and associated conditions when administered in an effective non-toxic dose in the form of a pharmaceutically acceptable composition resulting in cell regeneration.

I then checked how many people had been awarded various patents for various substances that might have some effect in the treatment of Diabetes since 1976 when the database was set up and came up with 16293 Patents…yet there is still no cure for Diabetes. I then checked how many patents had been awarded to Nigerians since 1976 and I came up with 182. 182 patents have been awarded to Nigerians for their various endeavours for which they wanted to protect the intellectual rights for. I wondered then why this patent was being celebrated with a headline article in arguably one of Nigeria's top circulating and widely respected dailies? My gut feeling is that there is ignorance on what a patent really is and what it means.

The question then is what is a patent? A commonly used English dictionary "Merriam-Webster OnLine" defines a patent as "a writing securing to an inventor for a term of years the exclusive right to make, use, or sell an invention". For a more official definition, I went to the website of the USA's Patent office and found their definition as "A U.S. patent for an invention is the grant of a property right to the inventor(s), issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The right conferred by the patent grant is, in the language of the statute and of the grant itself, "the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling" the invention in the United States or "importing" the invention into the United States." Then I looked for the criteria for which a patent can be issued on the same site and came up with "Patents may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or compositions of matters, or any new useful improvement thereof"

Nowhere does it say that the invention (which may be a product, a method of production, or indeed a plant classification) has gone through any scrutiny apart from that of the inventor neither himself...nor any peer review. In effect anybody can apply for a patent based on the above criteria. This is the simple reason why another colleague Dr. Abalaka was given a patent for his AIDS "cure". (This was equally championed by sections of the press)

I cannot say anything about my the credibility of my colleague Dr. Louis Obyo Obyo scientific background, but any person with a basic science background will worry about the portrayal of the issuing of a patent as a BREAKTHROUGH! It might well turn out to be one...but there is a long way to go.... and until that point is reached. The Newspaper will do well to live up to its motto of "The Pursuit of Truth and Reason" and seek this truth even if it takes verification of the authenticity of such articles a few days prior to publication by any of the abundant learned scientists scattered around Nigerian institutions of learning.

While it is not the right place normally to consider the scientific veracity of the claims being made by my colleague, the means by which it is being publicised leaves one no option but to further analyse the scientific basis of these claims. The study on which he based his conclusions was made on a "grand total" of 31 people (26 patients and 5 controls!). According to him, the 26 patients were suffering from "Hyperglycemia". According to the ICD 10 classification of diseases, there is no disease known as Hyperglyceamia. Rather Hyperglycaemia is a feature of many medical conditions, one of which is Diabetes Mellitus of which there are two distinct forms. (No reference is made by the author as regards the type of Diabetes for which his extract was useful). His outcome on which success was celebrated was stated as "showed remission of the disease after 3 months." This will hardly stand the simplest peer review for a life-long condition.

All I have quoted here are no secrets, but in the public domain. Anyone with an Internet access can retrieve the information and judge for himself. There might eventually be some interesting and maybe even groundbreaking discovery in Dr. Nelson's work, but it is early days to call for a celebration. If he has made a discovery that he thinks will change the course of a disease like Diabetes Mellitus, and indeed history, scientific journals will be falling over themselves to publish his work.

Only recently, Brigadier General Oviemo Ovadje was being celebrated all over the world for his invention known as Emergency Auto Transfusion Set (EATSET). The EATSET is a medical device that allows for the collection and purification and subsequent re-infusion of a patient's own blood. Another Nigerian Philip Emeagwali is well known to have produced what was at the time the fastest computer in the world. Dr Nelson will do well to seek counsel on the necessary scrutiny any invention (especially medical) needs to go through before it is released unto human "guinea pigs" as has often been done by various claimants that pop up on the scene from time to time.

The assumption that most of us NIGERIANS are unintelligent and stupid and consequently vulnerable to believing as the truth whatever is written by some of our newspapers must be put to rest. We in the scientific community have a responsibility to respond. Those of us that have taken the Hippocratic oath, as doctors must remember the words "I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those physicians in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow." It is the lives of people that we are dealing with…and even if it seems so cheap in Nigeria today, we must not forget.

I am sure that I will be barraged by accusations of not being patriotic, or even of ethnic sentiments, but fortunately (or unfortunately for others) good science knows no boundaries, language or ethnicity…and I will continue to celebrate the Ovadjes and Emegwalis of our Great country.