Macdonald Ighodaro is a professor at the Lead City University, Ibadan, Oyo State, Nigeria. His primary research interest is phytomedicine – involved in the study of herbal medicine with therapeutic and healing properties. In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES’ Oladeinde Olawoyin, he spoke about the apathy Nigerians show towards alternative medicine and what could be done to address this.
PT: What is your field of research and which university are you affiliated to?
Ighodaro: My research interest is Phytomedicine, Drug Discovery and Development. I am affiliated to Lead City University, Ibadan, Nigeria.
PT: Can you elaborate on your research interest; what does this mean to the common man?
Ighodaro: People suffer from all sorts of diseases or ailments and in some cases the available conventional drugs may not be effective as expected or may have unbearable side effects. These drugs may also be unaffordable to some of the populace. My research interest is basically to find out plants that can be safely used as alternatives to the conventional drugs in the treatment or management of diseases, and possibly isolate and purify (produce) drug candidates with relatively better therapeutic characteristics compared to their existing counterparts.
PT: How do you go about this?
Ighodaro: When you ask questions around, especially from the elderly ones, you will realize that there are beliefs about the abilities of different indigenous plants to cure different diseases. However, these may just be claims which have not been scientifically proven. Most times, my work begins with the knowledge of such folklore claims. I then seek for these plants, prepare their extract using different solvents (such as water and alcohol), create or model a disease of interest in choice of animals, particularly White albino (Wistar) . Once the onset of the disease is confirmed in the experimental animals, treatment with the plant extract of interest commences and lasts for a set period of time. Thereafter, different laboratory tests are done to ascertain whether or not, the plant has been able to cure the animals from the disease. If the answer to this is yes, it becomes important to also check whether or not the plant is totally safe for consumption using different toxicity testing models (acute, sub-chronic and chronic toxicity models). When found safe, we then attempt to identify the main constituent (s) of the plant responsible for the observed medicinal or therapeutic effect. It is this bioactive compound that is isolated, purified and formulated into a phyto-drug.
PT: But what of the components are not restricted to a single component..?
Ighodaro: Sometimes the medicinal effect of a plant may not be restricted to a particular component. In this case, it is the whole extract that is processed into a usable formulation for the treatment of a particular disease.
PT: It does appear that people, including Nigerians, show apathy to natural medicinal treatment. Why?
Ighodaro: I don’t think that statement is absolutely or entirely true. No doubt, there are individuals within the country who are not open to the use of herbal medicines for treatment of any kind of ailments or diseases. Reasons for such disposition are diverse. Before I explain some of these reasons, it is important to state that according to statistics, large chunk of Nigerians, across different social-economic and educational boundaries, believe in and are disposed to the use of herbal remedies. This trend is not peculiar to Nigeria; it is noticeable across the globe. In both developing and developed countries of the world, the integral roles of medicinal plants in the global health care systems, plans and strategies has gradually gained notable recognition and endorsement from both patients and health-care professionals. Therapeutic interventions of the diverse parts (leaves, stem, seed, bark, roots etc) of numerous folklore plants from various regions of the world are well documented in scientific archives. More so, a number of conventional clinics or/and hospitals have also attested to the efficacy of some folklore plants in the treatments of life-threatening ailments or diseases which apparently defiled conventional remedies (use of orthodox drugs). The reason for the above is not far-fetch. Plants are inherently rich in bioactive compounds or constituents which are capable of equipping the human body with the physiological and biochemical machineries to combat abnormalities.
As regards the question, ‘’why are some persons not inclined to the use of herbal medicines?’
There are different reasons for this position. First is lack of confidence in the efficacy of herbal medicine. All their lives, they have probably used conventional drugs for treatments and thus far the drugs have worked for them. In that case, it is only logical to stay with what you know and naturally needless to try what you are not certain of. The lack of confidence may have also arisen from an experience of a close relative or friend whose health condition deteriorated consequent upon reliance on herbal remedies.
This is very possible because it is not all therapeutic effects associated with a plant that is true, and this is why scientific investigation of folklore claims is expedient.
Secondly, there is the fear of herbal toxicity owing to the fact that the problem of dosage or how much is appropriate for consumption remains a grey area in herbal medicine. Like a coin, there are two sides to this. Firstly, for non-toxic plants, this fear is needless because these plants are actually safe even at extremely high doses. However, there are plants that are naturally or inherently toxic. For such plants, one has to be extremely careful with their use for medicinal purpose regardless of how potent they are in treating certain ailments. This is why toxicological profiling is an integral part of our assessment of plants with medicinal potentials. On this note, it is advisable that use of herbal medicines should be done on the recommendations of individuals with vast knowledge and experience in the use of plants for treatment of diseases.
PT: What about the fear of contamination?
Ighodaro: There is the fear of contamination during formulation or processing, and rightly so. Hence, the environment and conditions under which herbal medicines are formulated or processed must be hygienic, clean and free of contaminants or microbes
PT: What then are the challenges facing your field of medicinal plant-based research, especially with regard to acceptance among the mass of the people?
Ighodaro: Like every other research field in this part of the world and unlike our foreign counterparts, we are grossly faced with limiting challenges in terms of lack of support or funding for research by the government and other cooperate organizations, especially for those of us within the private institutions. We also lack adequate research facilities in our institutions (universities and research centers) as well as apparent lack of interest in research by the government.
These factors make cutting-edge translational researches difficult and most times unattainable. There is a limit to the problems that can be resolve by self-funded researches. Substantial investment in research is the way to go by any nation who truly seeks growth and development. In the pyramid of life, pivotal to every national growth and development is improved science and technology.
PT: It does appear that information about breakthroughs in your field is quite scanty. Why?
Ighodaro: It is one thing to conduct a research with a notable and applicable finding, and entirely another ball game to effectively disseminate such vital outcome to the public domain.
There are a couple of factors that cripple the latter. Firstly, some scientist seem not to know the importance of research communication; some that do apparently do not know how to go about it and others that know meet ‘roadblocks’ in their attempt to communicate their research findings to the public or government. Some of these roadblocks are in the form of financial demands from the scientist’ by some press personnel before his/her finding can appear in the news, and this lack of support from press personnel (journalists) who are trained to effectively disseminate information in languages highly comprehensible to the public cripples the ultimate goal of research. Other times, it is ‘financial settlement’ from supporting staff of politicians from the scientist in order to have access to one of those in government to communicate his/her research finding, even after such findings may have been certified by the necessary agency. This is obviously not unconnected to lack of value for research by both the government and citizens. Currently, news on entertainments and politics in all shapes and forms are adjudge to be highly sellable in this part of the world by the press, and is arguably a reflection of where the values lie. Secondly, drive for self-glory at the expense of national development among researchers from the same field is another hindrance to availability of news on vital research findings. Some individuals would go to any length to ensure that a particular research finding does not see the light of day as long as it is not associated with them.
PT: What do you think can be done to fix some of the above concerns?
Ighodaro: It all rise and fall on leadership. I said that to mean that that the role of the government in correcting this abnormally is not only crucial but indispensable. Firstly, the Nigerian government must place appropriate value on research and esteem it a viable means of stimulating national growth and development. With such mindset, it becomes easy for the government to appreciate money for research as critical component of national budget and become inclined to funding or investing in research and other necessary structures (human resources, institutions, universities and research institutions) that facilitate effective and productive research. They should formulate and implement policies as well as establish structures that will encourage the communication, dissemination and application of research findings.
Structures to support productive collaborations between the scientists and press personnel (Journalists) should be put in place and existing ones should be encouraged and supported.
In the light of this, I am personally impressed with what African Science Literacy Network (ASLN) has been doing for the past one year, bringing journalists and scientists together under the same ‘umbrella ‘for trainings and collaboration in a bid to improving science or research communication. With this structure, I have found it easy to communicate my research findings to the public more than ever before. Similarly, the government can set up accessible committee on communication/implementation of research findings, which can function as an interface between the government and scientists.
PT: Has the government (and media/society) really helped to instill confidence in the potency of your solutions to health challenges, if any?
Ighodaro: Well, may be by your question you mean if the government, media and society believe in the potency of my herbal remedies to health challenges? Belief in the potency of a product comes only when you are aware of such product and you have personally used it or received validations from those who have used it. This is what we have been clamoring for, societal and governmental awareness of our research findings/products. The need for proper awareness or publicity of these products cannot be overemphasized. The media is greatly needed for the society and government to play their roles in encouraging and supporting more researches and formulation of more products. The journalists are indispensable to our success stories, so help us out!
PT: What advice do you have for young professionals hoping to pursue interest in your career line?
Ighodaro: First and foremost, what is worth doing is what doing well. Regardless of how some professionals may be going about it right now, make up your mind to pursue your interest in this field of research in the right way, to the best of your abilities and with all selflessness and honesty of heart. Choose to make a positive difference, particularly for the fact that, this is about human lives. For every wrong and unfounded information released to the public domain, millions of lives are at risk. Look out for the best, learn from the best and become the best in what you do.