Nigeria takes over sickle cell drug

Around 12 million people worldwide suffer from sickle cell anaemia Copyright: NIH

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[ABUJA]The Nigerian government will manufacture an indigenous remedy for sickle cell anaemia following the collapse of attempts to produce it commercially by the Nigerian subsidiary of a US-based pharmaceutical company.

Niprisan — marketed as Nicosan by Xechem International, the company that till recently held the licence to produce it — is taken by thousands of Nigerian sickle cell sufferers to alleviate their symptoms. Production slowed down in the last year and sources say it has now ceased completely.

But the government’s National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development (NIPRD), which originally developed the treatment, told SciDev.Net last week (19 March) that it is taking over production of Niprisan.

"We wish to confirm that the exclusive licence given to Xechem International for the manufacture and marketing of Nicosan has been withdrawn and the agreement in this regard terminated," said Niyi Ojuolape, special assistant (communication) to the Nigerian Minister of Health.

"In the mean time, NIPRD will be producing the drug to make up for any possible shortfall that might arise before a new licensee is appointed," Niyi told SciDev.Net in an email.

Niprisan is based on extracts from West African plants that had been known to generations of a Nigerian family as an effective treatment for sickle cell anaemia. Around 12 million people worldwide suffer from the painful genetic illness.

The family who owned the recipe initially made a pioneering agreement with NIPRD, widely cited as a case study in "benefit sharing" — allowing local groups to have a stake in the profits from commercialising indigenous products.

The licence to produce the drug was subsequently bought by Xechem International, which held it for six years — during the last few of which it was dogged by allegations of fraud and mismanagement.

In November 2008 Xechem International filed for bankruptcy protection in the United States (see Bankruptcy leaves indigenous sickle cell treatment in jeopardy).

Charles Wambebe, chief executive officer of the International Biomedical Research Institute in Abuja, Nigeria, and former director-general of NIPRD, says: "The development is a good one for the country. Now sickle cell sufferers in Nigeria can access the drug cheaply".

"Seeing that Xechem failed to live up to their expectations, let the status quo remain — that is, NIPRD producing the drug for Nigerians. After all Xechem did not add any value to the whole process," he told SciDev.Net.

But NIPRD has said that its own production of Niprisan will be temporary, pending the appointment of a new licence-holder.

LaMonte Forthun, a Xechem shareholder who is attempting to resurrect the firm under different management, says that it was important in the longer term to find a company to take over production of Niprisan.

"The people at NIPRD are all top notch and they have an emotional attachment to the product which is something that is really needed right now," he says.

"It’s hoped that they don’t let this experience ruin future relationships or collaborations with public companies.

"NIPRD is a research and development group and they are second to none, but having to deal with marketing, sales, distribution, commercial scale quantities of raw material acquisition, etc., would distract them from what they specialise in — developing new drugs."