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[LAGOS] A controversy has erupted in Nigeria over the sale to a foreign company of the rights to a patent on a locally developed drug for sickle cell anaemia.

The drug, NIPRISAN, was developed by a traditional medicine practitioner working in collaboration with researchers at Nigeria’s National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research Development (NIPRD) in Abuja.

Rights to the patent for the drug — which is widely regarded as a significant breakthrough in the treatment of sickle cell anaemia — have been sold to the US-based, Indian-owned company Xechem International Inc.

Local scientists claim that the sale of rights to the patent was illegal and against the national interest. In a petition to Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, staff members at NIPRD also claim that the sale of the patent was illegal, as it was done without the health ministry's approval.

They are asking the government to probe the sale of the patent, claiming that NIPRD director general Ufot Inyang “acted improperly in the sale of a new drug which was developed locally and could be produced here as well”.

But government officials reject this criticism, and argue that licensing the patent to a foreign company will allow mass production of a drug that will help treat a serious hereditary blood disease that is highly prevalent in Nigeria.

Inyang says the rights to the patent were sold to Xechem with the full knowledge of the health ministry, and is intended to ensure mass production of the product.

He adds that the sale had the support of NIPRD board, and that the minister of health and other top government officials were present when it was formally agreed. He describes the petitioners as non-technical support staff at the institute, and claims that their real grievance is his attempt to reorganise the institute so it can concentrate more on research.

The incidence of sickle cell anaemia in Nigeria is among the highest in the world, with more than 100,000 Nigerian children being born each year with the ailment. Those with the disease suffer a higher than average frequency of illness and premature death, especially in infancy. The condition can also cause heart attacks, kidney failure, severe infections and sudden death.

“Nowhere is sickle cell disorder more common than in Nigeria, but no structure has been put in place to address the disorder,” says Olu Akinyanju, chairman of Nigerian Sickle Cell Foundation.

Xechem has announced plans to set up a production plant in Nigeria to produce the sickle cell drug, which is expected to be place on the market before the end of the year.

The company has what it describes as “an international network of ethnobotanists, local folklore healers (shamens) and chemists” which it uses to screen natural products used by folklore healers for their potential therapeutic value.