UNTIL now, Nigerians go abroad or send their samples overseas for forensic testing, parental testing, newborn screening, and prenatal diagnosis among other genetic tests.
Forensic testing is used to determine parentage, and identity plane crash victims, while prenatal diagnosis is used for preventive diagnosis of sickle cell anaemia and screening for breast cancer gene I and II (BRCA 1/2).
But a new Molecular Biology Laboratory Centre (MBLC) at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) Idi-Araba, built and equipped by Chevron/Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) Joint Venture is set to locally provide all these high-tech genetic tests at affordable prices.
Genetic testing, also known as DNA testing, allows the genetic diagnosis of vulnerabilities to inherited diseases, and can also be used to determine a child’s parentage (genetic mother and father) or in general a person’s ancestry.
DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is the hereditary material in humans and almost all other organisms.
Forensic testing uses DNA sequences to identify an individual for legal purposes. This type of testing can identify crime or catastrophe/crash victims, rule out or implicate a crime suspect, or establish biological relationships between people (for example, paternity).
Parental testing uses special DNA markers to identify the same or similar inheritance patterns between related individuals.
Newborn screening is used just after birth to identify genetic disorders that can be treated early in life.
Prenatal diagnosis is used to detect changes in a feotus’s genes or chromosomes before birth. This type of testing is offered to couples with an increased risk of having a baby with a genetic or chromosomal disorder.
Minister of Health, Prof. Onyebuchi Chukwu, at the official commissioning of the Genetic Centre last week in Lagos said Nigerians will no longer have any reason to travel abroad for specialized medical diagnosis and treatment, and the country will soon become a destination of choice for medical tourism in Africa.
Chukwu said: “With the commissioning of the first molecular biology laboratory centre in LUTH today the country will soon become a destination of choice for medical tourism especially from our neighbouring countries.
“The availability of this centre will have a significant impact as thousands of Nigerians who could not afford overseas medical treatment, now have access to quality and affordable healthcare services which will be provided by this facility.
“This is bound to add value to healthcare delivery in Nigeria. Critical health services are now available and the Centre is now empowered to provide capacity building. In addition, the centre will enhance the quality of patient’s care, improve the standard of education and knowledge as medical students and researchers will use the facility for studies.”
Chukwu who was represented by the Project Director, Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, Federal Ministry of Health (FMoH), Dr. Abdulsalami Nasidi, said facilities such as this are highly needed in Nigeria because it will make it possible for all human diseases to be linked to genes, which will ensure better diagnosis and treatment. “I believe that this facility will aid easy diagnosis and tailored medical treatment. It will also help in reducing morbidity and mortality especially in inheritable diseases,” he said.
Chukwu thanked Chevron for their commitment in improving healthcare in the country especially in releasing additional $5 million funding for the Prevention of Mother and Child Transmission (PMTCT) of Human Immuno-deficiency Virus (HIV)/Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in Nigeria.
Vice President, Policy and Planning, Chevron Corporation, Rhoda Zygocki, yesterday at the commissioning said: “Our partnership with LUTH in providing the Molecular Biology Laboratory Centre, worth N100 million, aligns with our commitment to helping to improve the quality of healthcare delivery in Nigeria. With the establishement of this laboratory at LUTH, the NNPC/Chevron Joint Venture has unlocked DNA biotechnology for Nigeria. In particular, LUTH will be able to provide some services for Nigerians, which hitherto were not readily available in country.
“This is a remarkable boost to healthcare delivery in Nigeria and expresses Chevron’s commitment to partnering with governments and other institutions for the development of the health sector in the country. We expect that in no time, laboratory samples from our hospitals will be treated at this facility.”
On why Chevron is so passionate about health care, Zygocki said: “As a company, Chevron supports long term social and economic development in the communities where we operate. Over the years, we have seen that economic development, energy development and human development are interwoven. The success of our company therefore depends on the success of the communities where we operate.
“We cultivate partnerships in three focus areas to promote social progress- in health, in education and in livelihoods. In the pursuit of our corporate responsibility obligations, we view health care as a crucial social service that we should support the government to implement as there can be no development in a society where people are plagued by ill-health.”
The Chevron’s Vice-President thanked the management of LUTH for partnering with the company to make the project a reality. “We also appreciate their commitment to sustainability through training of laboratory technicians and running the centre with funds to be generated from the usage of the facility,” she said.
Chairman LUTH Management Board, Dr. Olatokunbo Awolowo-Dosumu, said that the commissioning of the centre was another feather in the cap of the hospital. Awolowo-Dosumu added that the possibilities to be unlocked by the presence of the Laboratory would further enhance the standing of LUTH as the leading teaching hospital in Nigeria and perhaps West Africa.
Chief Medical Director of LUTH, Prof. Akin Osibogun said: “I must say that I have been lucky in seeing our efforts come to fruition. Following the sad incident of the DANA crash of March 2012 and the protracted delays that preceded the release of bodies, we set for ourselves the goal of developing the capability for DNA Biotechnology not only for the purposes of identification, but also for other very important purposes including prenatal screening and genetic diagnosis. We also hope that in future we will be able to go into the advanced areas of gene therapy.
“In the journey to establish this laboratory we were able to identify a very reliable partner in Chevron/NNPC Joint Venture. This corporate entity with a deep sense of social responsibility has funded the renovation of the space we provided and also funded the equipment that have been installed ready for use.”
Associate professor of Molecular Genetics at the University of Antwerp, Belgium and Chief Consultant to the LUTH/Chevron-NNPC Joint Venture Genetic Testing Centre, Dr. Joy Irobi-Devolder said the new genetic centre promises to reduce the over 100,000 lives lost annually in the country to sickle cell anaemia and much more to breast cancer.
Irobi-Devolder said with technical support from Department of Molecular Genetics Antwerp University, Belgium the Centre has several applications.
The Molecular Geneticist who also has a first degree in Pharmacy from University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN), said: “It think this is really wonderful opportunity because we are now in the era of human genomic sequencing and there are so many genetic diseases.
“Let us take for instance a simple one, the sickle cell disease, when we know as for now 100,000 infants are dying in Nigeria every year and this largely because of misdiagnosis. Now the old technique of using haemoglobin blood count is actually not properly diagnosing the disease very well and this is why it has become important that this centre is now going to develop a genetic assay that is going to correctly diagnose every sickle cell patient.
“Why it is really important is that all those people that are carrier can now actually come to the centre where they can do prenatal or even newborn screening so that immediately they know if their child is sickle cell carrier or a real sickle cell disease and then they can start from early onset to treat the patient and not wait till when the disease is already expanded and then it becomes a rescue and this is how you lose a lot of them.
“So this centre is actually giving a new diagnostic estimate in the form of genetic analysis that is going to help reduce the high mortality rate of sickle cell disease in Nigeria. That is number one.
“Number two is that we now see a lot of Nigerian women that are dying of breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Why is this? It is because some of them do not have the opportunity or have enough finance to go abroad for genetic testing. Now we have it in-house, in-country so that when there is a patient that know that there is someone in the family, an auntie or the mother, has breast cancer.
“You can come to the centre and ask for genetic test because this actually increases the chance of personalized medicine. It has been shown that specific mutations in BRCA gene (breast cancer gene) actually determines the type of treatment that you will be given. So it is not just the diagnosis, this is also therapy. So it becomes very important that it is within the country, which means it is affordable for everyone, for every Nigerian.”
Irobi-Devolder said the Centre would also be able to solve all disputes on paternity and maternity of an offspring.
She explained: “Paternity testing is a very common assay and what it now show is that most of the hospitals within Nigeria send the sample outside either to United Kingdom or South Africa. It is no longer required because now this centre has the capacity to do in-house parenting testing by looking at more than 26 genetic markers. What is important now is that they start sampling; they start collecting the samples.
“Another important issue of this centre is that it is not just sending the blood sample but I am going to help them to start training all the other scientist within several of all these big hospitals. So that they are able to have their own DNA Data Banking so that it is easy to just send DNA sample to the centre for screening.
“So it is not all about doing paternity test, which is now in-house, you don’t have to pay so much money for taking it outside, it can be done within the country. But also they get sort of training on how they can isolate DNA from each sample, from blood sample and start having your own individual hospital-based DNA storage data bank. I think it is a novel technology because of paternity is something that is so common and we can now do it so comfortably in-house at this new genome centre in LUTH.”