Tapping Indigenous Plants to Treat Disease in Nigeria

Grantees in this story

570_A_Tapping-Indigenous-Knowledge-of-Plants-to-Treat-Sickle-Cell-Anemia.jpg
Amujoyegbe Olayinka has been collecting indigenous plant samples to identify compounds effective in treating sickle cell anemia disease. (Photo: Megan Lindow)

A pharmaceutical botanist takes on sickle cell anemia.

In her laboratory at a Nigerian university, Amujoyegbe Olayinka surveys her collection of plant extracts. Over 200 small, rusty jars filled with murky brown liquid, and identified only by handwritten labels on masking tape, sit, waiting to have their contents analyzed under her microscope. Maybe some of these specimens contain compounds to fight disease and save lives, or perhaps a trove of plant-based materials with the potential to form the basis of an indigenous, natural pharmaceutical industry lay dormant just waiting to be discovered. Amujoyegbe hopes so.

For her PhD research, Amujoyegb has been working to identify compounds from native plants with the capability to effectively treat sickle cell anemia, a genetic hemoglobin disorder affecting as many as 20 percent of the population. Today her research is progressing at a steady pace, but she wasn’t always certain she’d be able to complete her studies. In 2012, three years into her graduate work in phytomedicine, Amujoyegbe ran out of money, and found herself unable to buy the essential chemicals she needed to analyze her plant samples. A scholarship from Carnegie Corporation of New York came at just the right time, and provided the launching pad for her life's work.

The women's scholarship program at Obafemi Awolowo University was offered from 2003 to 2013 with the goal of helping to bring more female academics into the higher education system. Unlike many of the other Corporation-backed scholarship programs, the scholarship program at Obafemi Awolowo University was offered not only to undergraduates, but also to master's students and junior lecturers completing their PhDs. The program widened its net to address the many young women who found themselves getting stuck as they advanced up the academic ladder. More often than not, these women had to fund their own work, and when family and financial obligations caught up with them, as they inevitably did, they had to put their studies on hold—sometimes forever.

Amujoyegbe is one of these women. Her trajectory has not been an easy one. The daughter of informal traders, she struggled hard in her pursuit of a university education. She graduated in 1996 with an undergraduate degree in botany, but it wasn’t until 13 years later that she was finally able to return to school. She loved academics, but she had married and was raising a family. Her husband was completing his PhD, and there was no money to spare, so she took a job as a high school science teacher and focused on raising their five children. With the exception of the scholarship funding, Amujoyegbe has paid her own way through her advanced training, even taking out a bank loan to fund her ethnobotanical field research.

Her work on sickle cell disease focuses primarily on two species of the Calliandra plant, and thus far, has shown promising results. In her lab, she induces sickling through the stimulation of a hypoxial state of oxygen deficiency in the blood samples that she’s obtained from a nearby teaching hospital. She then studies the samples under a microscope to see if the plant compounds effectively inhibit the sickling of the blood cells. “When you go into the lab and look through the microscope, you see answers provided in nature to help mankind,” she says.

Her work has not gone unnoticed. “She pioneered the research on Calliandra,” says her supervisor, Joseph M. Agbedalumusi, an associate professor in the drug research and production unit of the Faculty of Pharmacy at Obafemi Awolowo University. “We're going further with it. Other doctoral students will work on the pharmacological and toxological aspects of the plant. We have done the biochemical parameters. Now we are formulating the plant into appropriate dosage form. From there, it will go to clinical trials. When the time comes to manufacture a drug, the traditional healers who contributed knowledge on methods of extraction and recipes to the project will be paid,” he says.

If the project is done right, Amujoyegbe sees it leading to the commercialization of a drug that will alleviate suffering from sickle cell disease for generations. But time is running out. Indigenous knowledge of plants is slowly disappearing, as are Nigeria’s forests. “In this part of the world, the women who know these plants die, and their knowledge dies with them. Civilization and urbanization are taking away our forests. All of these issues are interwoven,” she says. “It's a life-long project. I just pray the Lord will help me. We are going to need a lot of resources.”

Megan Lindow is an award-winning writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. She is a former Africa Correspondent for the Chronicle of Higher Education and the author of Weaving Success: Voices of Change in African Higher Education, the story of a major 10-year initiative investing in African universities.

This article is part of a series exploring the transformation of African women's lives through education.