By Gatonye Gathura
For the first time, Kenya Government is deliberately throwing money into cancer research to stop what it calls a runaway crisis.
“We are putting up to Sh50 million in the hands of each local successful applicant innovating against cancer,” says the National Research Fund (NRF).
In a call for funding proposals, the agency’s Chief Executive Officer says Kenya is faced with an alarming increase in cancer cases mainly for lack of appropriate home grown solutions.
The funding process which started in May is currently assessing concept notes with successful projects expected to take off by January 2021.
Applicants, the fund says must comprehensively address local relevance and benefits, intellectual property ownership and uncompromising ethical research practices.
The funding among others covers the development of new cancer diagnostics, prevention, and treatment technologies including alternative medicines.
Kenya has the fourth highest cancer research in Africa but the government has persistently complained this has been of little benefit.
“Health research and development remains donor-driven, fragmented and uncoordinated leading to low impact and lack of improvement of health standards,” says the State in the 2019 Medium-Term Expenditure Framework review.
Currently some 109 cancer clinical trials are going on in Africa most of them, 45, in Egypt, 11 in South Africa, 10 in Algeria, and 9 in Kenya.
The study published in JCO Global Oncology says most of these studies are funded and directed by institutions from the West and may not solve local solutions.
For example, the study says while prostate cancer is the most prominent type in Kenyan men; it is not among the nine ongoing clinical trials in the country.
The experts from the University of Florida, US, University of Nigeria, University of Zimbabwe and the University of Ghana say it is wrong to assume drugs developed overseas will be effective on Africans.
The National Research Fund says current cancer diagnosis, care and treatment do not fully reflect the unique demographic, socio-economic, genomics and environmental characteristics of Kenya.
This is demonstrated in a recent study among 217 women attending the Reproductive Health Clinic at Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) suggesting the current cervical cancer vaccine being given to 9-year-old girls in Kenya is not appropriate.
The study by Agnes Omire of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology and colleagues from the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) had tested the women for the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) which causes cervical cancer.
A third of the women were confirmed with HPV characterized by up to eight cervical cancer-causing subtypes that are not covered in the current vaccine.
“This is an indication that other HPV types are more prevalent in Kenya other than the two, 16, 18 types included in the HPV vaccine being offered to Kenya girls,” says Omire. The study appears in the June issue of the BioMed Research International.
“There is need to improve the current vaccine by including the other high-risk types prevalent in this region,” plead the authors.
The research fund is also demanding that applicants demonstrate that their invention will be fully protected against possible theft especially when collaborating with international organisations.
“An agreement document covering issues of confidentiality, intellectual property rights and publication should be signed by all consortium members at the start of project work and updated at the end of the project.”
This is a case of once bitten twice shy. On 6 March 2014 the then KNH Chief Executive Officer, Lily Koros had sent the country into a frenzy after announcing the facility had developed an effective early cervical cancer treatment.
Working with scientists from the University of Manchester, UK, Koros said they had tested the HIV drug, Kaletra, on 40 women with early signs of cervical cancer and had achieved a 90 per cent cure rate.
“We are in this together with the UK. In fact, KNH and the University of Nairobi are enjoined in patenting the treatment. We have documentation with us today to prove this,” one of the KNH researchers had said.
But six years on, the invention has since been patented exclusively by a UK couple, the University of Manchester and Douglas Pharmaceuticals Ltd., of New Zealand.
An international patent approved in November last year protects the invention in all territories, countries and regions, with no reference whatsoever to Kenya, KNH or to the 40 experimental Kenyan women.
Currently the R131 Vaginal Ointment is undergoing final clinical studies at the Wellington Regional Hospital in New Zealand.
But despite the challenges, David Makumi of the Kenya Network of Cancer Organisations says the funding is a positive step in managing cancer in Kenya.
“Lack of localized interventions, has been cause of higher cancer mortalities in the region compared to developed countries. I especially hope nurses will aggressively pursue the funding because they best know the existing cancer gaps,” said Makumi.