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Opinions of Tuesday, 18 October 2005

Columnist: Ayisi, Nana K.

Science and Society: The Challanges

A. Introduction

The time for beautiful statistics on diseases, expensive conferences at plush hotels, and donor-driven development should be over. No one now doubts the potential of the aforementioned activities in stalling or completely derailing the modest attempts by African governments to achieve some measure of economic advancement. We have already wasted a lot of time and money on unproductive and confused educational reforms that have failed to focus on science as the backbone for development.

Despite the abundant evidence that poorly controlled AID to Africa has become an obstacle to development, African governments have yet to fashion out a way to utilize such funds for scientific development.

Years of racial subjugation have left the African continent with lack of self-confidence to the extent that we are prepared to accept news of scientific breakthroughs from Asia, Europe, and North America, but yet denigrate any achievements from our own society. It is now time to marshal all efforts to organize our scientists to contribute fully in the development of our African society. The history of our past scientific achievements, suggested plans for scientific development, and anticipated challenges, and how to overcome such challenges, are hereby presented in a lecture entitled ?Science and Society: The Challenges?.

B. Pre-Colonial or Early Science

At the beginning of creation or may we say evolution, man was satisfied with simply living off the environment. Obviously, creation or evolution involved all aspects of basic sciences. The applied sciences of Agriculture, Engineering, and Medicine were developed by man as responses to environmental obstacles man faced in attempts to improve his living conditions. It is very difficult to pinpoint which of the three disciplines of applied sciences was first practiced by man.

Engineering is needed to produce the tools for effective agriculture. Agriculture is important to feed mankind. Without good health, man cannot perform any of the other two applied sciences. All three applied sciences have therefore been part of mankind from the beginning of creation or evolution.

Pre-colonial Africa saw major scientific achievements in science especially in construction as evident in the Pyramids of Egypt and Southern Sudan. Contrary to the popular association of pyramids with Egypt, it is important to note that most of the world?s pyramids are in Southern Sudan. The ?obelisks? of Ethiopia are a marvel of architectural engineering. Africa provided the sources of many medicinal plants from which several orthodox drugs have been derived. Most notable among these is the periwinkle plant from which is derived vincristine or oncovine and vinblastine. Vincristine is a major component of many anticancer combination therapies and its combination with corticosteroids is the treatment of choice to induce remission in childhood leukemia. Vinblastine is used in combination with bleomycin and cis-platin for the treatment of metastatic testicular cancer.

C. Colonial or Pre-Independence Period

This was the period during which the scientific initiatives of Africans on this continent were curtailed. We became hewers of wood and miners of minerals for the development of Europe. To make matters worse, our able men and women were sold into slavery to work on the plantations and in the factories in the United States to develop that country. The erosion of self-confidence in Africans, coupled with the trickery of the Europeans and the self-defeating tribal wars, led to a lull in the scientific development on the continent of Africa during this period. The opposite happened with our brothers in the Diaspora.

The demand for hard work compelled our brothers and sisters in the Diaspora to be innovative and inventive in order to lessen the burden on them. For reasons that will become obvious later on, I would like to give specific examples of scientific achievements of our brothers and sisters in the Diaspora during the colonial period.

Richard Spikes invented the automatic car directional signals, the "fail safe" brake for motor vehicles and the automatic car wash. A Philadelphia confectioner, Augustus Jackson is called the "father of ice cream," Benjamin Bannaker is said to have invented the first watch used in the USA and Hyram Thomas is responsible for the potato chip.

We should thank Granville T. Woods of Columbus, Ohio for modernizing railroading with the invention of the "Third Rail," the source of subway power. He also patented a phone transmitter (1885) that was later bought by Bell Telephone, and invented the induction telegraph system (1887) which informed an engineer of trains directly in front and behind him, ensuring safer rail travel. Woods is also credited with the automatic air brake and the electric incubator for hatching chickens. Inventor Woods took on the powerful Edison Company who challenged his inventions in patent court. He not only won those patent rights, but was also able to prove his earlier rights to inventions claimed by Edison. Interestingly enough, after his second legal loss to Woods, Edison offered him a position to work for him. Woods turned him down, going on to found the Woods Electric Company which manufactured and sold phone, telegraph and electrical instruments. Woods registered 50 patents.

Lewis Latimer of Chelsea, Massachusetts, gave us the carbon filament (1882), making light bulbs possible on a mass production basis (and consequently getting Edison off the ground). While an engineer with the Edison Company, Latimer supervised the installation of the first electric light system in New York, Philadelphia, Montreal and London.

Elijah McCoy of Detroit, son of runaway slaves, was born in Canada and educated in Scotland in mechanical engineering. Between 1872 and 1920, he received over 57 patents for inventions such as the automatic lubricating appliances, making him a pioneer in that field. His inventions caused the steady supply of oil to machinery in intermittent drops from a cup, eliminating the necessity of stopping the machine to oil it.

Jan E. Matzeliger, born in Dutch Guyana of parents who were former slaves, served his apprenticeship in a shoe shop in Lynn, Massachusetts. He invented the Automatic Shoe Lasting Machine (1883), the first machine automatically performing all the operations for attaching soles to shoes in less than a minute, revolutionizing the art of shoe making. His patent was bought by the United Shoe Machinery Company, Boston, which became a multimillion dollar corporation, the largest of its kind in the world.

The railway transportation system owes gratitude to Andrew J. Beard, who, without any formal training in engineering or metal working, invented and patented the "Jenny-Coupler" or the "Automatic Rail Coupler" (1897). As a direct result of Beard's invention, the Federal Safety Appliance Act was enacted by Congress making it illegal for railroads to supply cars that did not couple automatically on impact.

In the field Agriculture, the most influential player was Dr. George Washington Carver of Tuskegee University?s fame (my alma mater), who revolutionized farming in the Southern USA through his numerous products from the pea nut plant. The World?s first open heart surgery by Dr. Daniel Hale Williams at the Provident Hospital in Chicago exemplified achievements by African-Americans in medicine.

The achievements of African-American men and women in science run the gamut from the fields of communication, travel, electricity, and agriculture to medicine. They have put shoes on millions of feet, given the time to countless others, fed the hungry, healed the sick and generally enabled all of us to have a safe better quality of life.

D. Post-Colonial Period

Many people have argued that Post-Colonial Africa started at the same level as Singapore and Malaysia. Nothing can be further from the truth than this belief. The people of Singapore and Malaysia did not have to deal with the psychological effects of slavery on their people. Their science graduate students in Europe and North America have always been favored over Africans where the awards of assistantships are concerned. It is quite common to hear African students make statements to the effect that the whiteman is superior to the Blackman. I have never heard a Singaporean or a Malaysian refer to whitemen as superior to them. Until Africans learn to appreciate what God has made them, they will never make any headway towards economic emancipation.

It was due to the psychological damage as a legacy of slavery that the likes of Kwame Nkrumah, Sekou Toure, Julius Nyerere, Gamel Naser, and Patrice Lumumba put up programs to instill pride and self-confidence in the new African. The educational programs of the Convention People?s Party (CPP) in the first republic sought to make Ghanaians proud of themselves so as to use science education and research to develop this country. The Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) and the polytechnics are testimony to the foresight of Nkrumah and the CPP. It will take vision, and therefore, visionary leaders, to be able to draw up appropriate programs to use science to develop Ghana and for that matter, Africa. But what do we see in our country today? Overemphasis on liberal arts education is the order of the day, especially in the private universities. Several post-senior secondary institutions have sprung up in this country with ?marketing? as their primary subject. What are we marketing? Are we marketing ?marketing?? Don?t we have to produce before marketing?

Before I dwell on science as the most needed ingredient to move this nation forward, I would like to recognize the contributions that music, art and literature make to lessen the effects of the rigors of science on man. A cool music, beautiful internal decorations, and exciting novels, all help to make the scientist more human. Nevertheless, I must say that all three are produced by scientific methods.

Well planned science education, industrialization, and scientific research, tailored to meet our needs, are what will help us survive the unpredictable economic order of this world. To this end, we must set aside a percentage of our national income for science development. Our schools need not only equipments but also qualified science teachers.

Our industries need revamping. Our research institutions need to be government and private sector funded. We should also encourage hypothesis-driven research. It is Government and not Private Sector that can lead this country in Science Education, Industrialization, and Research and Development. It is Government that should set the national priorities and agenda for the above three areas.

At this point, I would like to call upon the Government to fund the setting-up of ?incubators? at all the three major universities in the country. When a faculty member has been able to invent something new or improve upon an old invention, there is the need to develop the findings away from the regular academic laboratory. This is where ?incubators? come into play. The incubators are usually on the same campus so that the faculty member can do his/her teaching and at the same time, develop the invention. It is in the ?incubators? that the private sector is brought in collaboration with the inventor. These ?incubators? can also be used to help develop inventions by artisans who are not in the formal educational sector, eg, those at Kumasi magazine.

Of particular interest to Research and Development is the role of Technologists and Technicians. As exemplified by the examples given for inventors in the Diaspora, these two middle manpower personnel, should be encourage to participate in the invention of equipments and other products that will benefit the society.

In my submission above on scientists of African origin, I dwelled on African-Americans. This is not to say that there are no accomplished scientists in Africa in the post-colonial period. In Ghana, we have practical scientists like Mr. Wood, Dr. Jackson, and Apostle Kwadwo Safo who have invented several equipments. Africa, however, still lags far behind Asia, Europe, and North America in terms of scientific discoveries. Several institutions like the KNUST, UG, UCC, CSIR, CSRIPM, KCCR, and NMIMR in Ghana, are making moderate contributions to scientific development in our country. In order to produce scientists who can use these institutions to effectively move this nation forward, we would have to shift the emphasis in our education from ?Ability to Acquire Knowledge? to ?Ability to Apply Knowledge?. We would need to better resource field scientists as opposed to administrators in order to attract the best brains to where it matters most.

Perhaps, the greatest challenge to science in the African society today, is the HIV/AIDS epidemic. HIV/AIDS is slowly decimating our society and yet our response has been haphazard. Where is the science in our efforts to tackle this epidemic? What can we do to stem the tide of this pandemic?

African countries like Uganda and Ghana have been able to achieve a lot by educating the public on the menace of this disease and how it can be prevented. However, a lot more need to be done in addition to the educational campaigns. The antiretroviral therapy program is underway in Ghana and many African countries.

Clinically available anti-HIV drugs act by inhibiting HIV reverse transcriptase and HIV protease. Three groups of anti-HIV drugs are available. These are: Nucleoside RT inhibitors (AZT, 3TC, FTC, ddC, ddI, ABC, PMPA, d4T); Nonnucleoside RT inhibitors (DLV, EFV, NVP); and Protease inhibitors (saquinavir, ritonavir, indinavir, nelfinavir, amprenavir). There is very little information on the effects of available anti-HIV drugs on clinical isolates from West-Africa. Drug resistance, lack of activity against chronically infected cells and toxicity to host cells are major drawbacks to the use of the clinically available drugs. Rapid mutations resulting in drug resistance do occur in HIV RT gene in the presence or absence of nucleoside analogs. Soon after HIV enters the body, the virus begins reproducing at a rapid rate of approximately, 10 billion new viruses/day. 50% of the new viral DNA transcripts have at least one mistake due to lack of error correcting enzymes by the RT. Poor water solubility, poor oral bioavailability, as well as the presence of protease inhibitor-resistant variants of HIV in untreated and treated patients have limited the use of these drugs.

The foregoing expositions demand new approaches to tackle the HIV/AIDS menace. Vaginal microbicides, multi-purpose acting plant products, and passive anti-HIV immune therapy, are plausible alternatives to the classical anti-HIV drugs.

D. Vaginal Microbicides

Vaginal microbicides are drug formulations that can be applied in the vagina by women to prevent the transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). They should be able to block both CD4-dependent and CD4-independent transmission, block both cell-associated and cell-free virus transmission, should not cause appreciable vaginal irritation, should not have anti-coagulant properties, preferably should not be spermicidal or contraceptive, should not adversely alter vaginal microflora and should have minimal side effects and systemic toxicity.

Until recently, nonoxynol-9 was the leading vaginal microbicide. Nonoxynol-9 has been found to enhance vaginal HIV transmission due to its ability to cause very serious vaginal irritation. Surprisingly, it was only on January, 2004 that Durex Consumer Products announced that as of March 31, 2004, it would become the first of the three largest condom manufacturers to stop offering nanoxynol-9 lubricated condoms for sale and distribution.

Unfortunately, the other two large condom manufacturers, Ansell Ltd., maker of Lifestyles condoms and Church & Dwight Company, maker of Trojan, are still refusing to discontinue production of their nonoxynol-9 condoms. Should some of these nonoxynol-9 lubricated condoms appear on the market in Ghana, this would be disastrous for the fight against HIV transmission in the country.

Several microbicides are in developmental stages. For the purpose of this lecture, I would like to concentrate on SAVVY, carrageenan, and Noguchi plants. SAVVY and carrageenan are in phase three clinical trials in Africa. Toxic concentration of SAVVY was able to give only minimal protection against HSV infection in animal models. Should this result be reflected in human clinical trials, this drug would become a nonstarter as a vaginal microbicide. Based on available preclinical data, SAVVY is unlikely to perform better than nonoxynol-9. Carrageenan is a sulfated polysaccharide derived from seaweeds and is effective against HIV, herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2), and human papiloma virus (HPV) in vitro and in vivo. Carrageenan being a sulfated polysaccharide has anti-coagulant activity. Its effect on blood clotting is however mild to moderate. Nevertheless, it can be broken down by acid hydrolysis in the vagina to form polygeenan, a known carcinogen. Furthermore, this drug is an inducer of inflammation and one wonders about the rationale in using it as a vaginal microbicide.

Several Ghanaian medicinal plants have been tested and some have been found to have very good activities against HIV and HSV. Most important among them are Ocimum gratissimum, Clausena anisata, Alchornea cordifolia, Ficus polita, Elaeophorbia drupifera and GHX-36 (Latin binomial name withheld for proprietary reasons).

Let us now take a look at some of the anti-HIV actions of the Noguchi plants. GHX-2L, GHX-6L, GHX-26F and GHX-27L inhibit HIV-1 reverse transcriptase. GHX-27L is the first and the only known drug capable of selectively killing HIV chronically infected cells and this unique action is crucial for stopping the millions of HIV producing factories that churn out billions of HIV particle each day thus making it very difficult to treat HIV infections. Plant extracts GHX-2L, GHX-6L, GHX-26F and GHX-27L inhibited gp 120-mediated fusion of chronically infected cells with uninfected cells. AZT on the other hand had no effect on this type of cytopathicity. This clearly shows that the plant extracts would be effective in preventing CD4-dependent HIV transmission and therefore have the potential of becoming vaginal microbicides. This hypothesis was tested in an NIAID contract research.

Plant extracts NIAID 7635, NIAID 7636, and NIAID 7637 were effective against both CD4-dependent and CD4-independent HIV transmission. The three plant extracts did not inhibit Lactobacillus beneficial vaginal microflora. The main mechanism of prevention of HIV transmission by the three plant extracts was inhibition of attachment.

It is obvious that I cannot end this lecture without touching on the use of passive immunotherapy to combat HIV/AIDS. Robust immune system and drugs are needed to treat certain infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS. The serological diagnostic window for HIV infection can range from three months to nine months. By the time the immune system reacts, billions of virus particle are being produced daily. The immune system is therefore overwhelmed. The virus also mimics certain human proteins and therefore not all epitopes are covered by the antibodies.

The production of anti-HIV serum in the goat where neutralizing antibodies are produced against most of the viral epitopes, is therefore in the right direction. I would like to suggest that the anti-HIV passive immune serum should be combined with the anti-retroviral drugs in the treatment of HIV/AIDS. The anti-retroviral drugs will reduce the amount of virus particles produced from infected cells and the passive immune serum will neutralize residual virus. This type of combination therapy would be more beneficial than the current approaches. Ghana seems not to be ready to develop the anti-HIV goat serum and I hope that other researchers at Harvard University and Virionyx will heed my call for combination of anti-retroviral and passive immune therapy in the fight against this dreaded disease.

The case of HIV/AIDS demonstrates the challenges science faces in trying to help society. Perhaps it is time to call for Political Leadership by Scientists in Africa. I would like to suggest to the people of Ghana to elect scientists to constitute at least 60% of our Members of Parliament so that policies will be formulated and implemented for the scientific development of this nation. Earlier on in this lecture, I stated that I was using specific examples of the achievements of African-Americans to illustrate the importance of science in society. I would like to end this lecture with the first verse of a poem composed by James Weldon Johnson, an African-American.

The connection of this poem to KNUST must be very obvious to all of you.

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and Heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list?ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling seas;
Sing a song full of the faith that the
dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the
Present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun
Of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

Thanks for coming and have a nice day.

Nana K. Ayisi, DVM,PhD
Professor of Pharmacology & Microbiology
Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research College of Health Sciences University of Ghana


Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.