In 2010, about 1.8 million people died of HIV-Aids worldwide. In Kenya, 1.6 million people live with the condition which is no longer a death sentence because something is always being done to blunt the sting of the virus. And, you don’t have to cross oceans to see this happening.
At the Karen outskirts of Nairobi, an HIV-killing innovation by a Kenyan using ten baboons is in full flight as we have learnt here at fountainmedia. Better still, the public-funded effort is now set to go for human clinical trials in the country.
Treasury has thrown in Sh50 million to cover the first of three phases of the trials whose background work is already underway.
A moment though; aren’t monkeys naturally immune to HIV? Yes, but non-human primates, such as baboons, are infected by the Simian Immunodeficiency Virus, the equivalent of HIV.
For purposes of research, scientists have combined the two viruses to produce what is called SHIV (simian-human immunodeficiency virus) for use in such studies.
“We are very excited about this development,” says Dr Jacob ole Miaron the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of State for National Heritage.
The trials, says Dr Miaron, will be supervised by Prof Walter Jaoko a microbiologist with the University of Nairobi who has been extensively involved in the search for an Aids vaccine globally.
“They will be carried out in sites at the University of Nairobi while we are in discussions with the Aga Khan University, Karen Hospital in Nairobi and the African Centre for Clinical Trials, so that we are able to get the widest possible diversity of information,” says Dr Miaron.
If this product succeeds in killing the Aids- causing virus as studies in baboons have already shown, then Kenya could be on its way to giving the world the weapon it needs to eliminate HIV.
The product called Unipron was first developed by Dr Peter Gichuhi Mwithera, the head of the Department of Reproductive Health and Reproductive Health at the Institute of Primate Research (IPR).
Based near Karen in Nairobi, IPR is a collaborative centre of the World Health Organisation and a quasi-government department in the National Museums of Kenya under the Ministry of State for National Heritage and Culture. WHO ranks it as a centre of excellence.
The research, which is published in the peer-reviewed African Journal of Reproductive Health, Journal of Reproduction & Contraception, and the Journal of Medical Primatology, among others, explains Dr Mwithera, started over a decade ago and features 10 baboons.
“After extensive studies on the baboons, the product was found to have three distinctive qualities. Its capacity to kill the Aids-causing virus makes it a possible candidate as a microbicide. Secondly, its capacity to immobilise sperms makes it a contraceptive and thirdly, it is has been found to be an effective lubricant for various medical and personal applications,” explains Dr Mwethera.
After establishing these capabilities and the safety of the product on the animals, explains the researcher who holds the patent for the innovation, the next logical step was to go into human clinical trials especially for its HIV-qualities.
However, funding became a problem and IPR decided to develop the three capabilities separately. Working with the WHO prequalified pharmaceutical firm, Universal Corporation Limited based in Kikuyu, the researcher put two products in the market.
The first, Smuscan is a gel mainly used in medical imaging such as ultrasound technologies. The other, Smugelviginal, is a lubricating gel for personal and other medical uses.
But the bigger story is the third product, Unipron, a microbicide against HIV and also a contraceptive which is the one going for clinical trials.
“The first thing is to establish that the product is safe in animal studies and then we move on to clinical trials,” says Prof Jaoko.