Anyone who wins Germany’s Alexander Humboldt Prize, may be on the line to win a Nobel Prize in his field. Most winners of the prestigious prize went on to win the Nobel Prize. Nigeria’s Andrew Nok of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria received the Humboldt prize early this year for his work in finding a cure for Trypanosomiasis.
He had his entire education in Nigeria. But his work aims at raising the quality of life of both man and animal on the continent. This soft spoken dark complexioned Nigerian of average height is now a giant on the world stage. His work is global and path breaking in the context of finding a vaccine for Trypanosomiasis. He is humble and his friendly office bears marks of this quality. His table is a small one, so you sit a bit close to him. There is no distance between both of you . It’s a beautiful psychological thing. Knowledge can produce simple, uncomplicated human beings. It does so in this case.
The name Nok is not just evocative of Nok terracottas, he bears the name of the famous community he hails from in Kaduna state, and Nok is also closely linked with tackling the scourge of Trypanosomiasis across the world. Is the letter ‘T’ significant to the people of Nok? They have produced Terracottas, and now their son is poised to arrest the scourge of Trypanosomiasis. Note the alphabet T occurs again.
He is known in all the major scientific circles across the world which investigate the scourge of Trypanosomiasis as well as Malaria, and the snake venom. This shows that a rounded education in Nigeria can prepare one to perform well on a global, in this case, scientific platform. But he states that the special effort of the individual can make a big difference.
This is a lesson for Nigeria of the present. Born in 1962 he is married with three children. Professor Andrew Jonathan Nok obtained his first, second and third degrees from the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. Now, he is the Director, Centre for Biotechnology Research and Training, as well as Dean Faculty of Science, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.
His is a world filled with Trypanosomes, parasites of various sorts, vectors, vaccines ,reagents and venoms. In his laboratory he navigates these realms with ease as he searches for a DNA vaccine for Trypanosomiasis. On his field of study, he says “My field of study is typically parasite enzymology,and the work has to do with identifying the crucial areas in parasites which can be exploited for drug design in the treatment of diseases.In the recent past our attention has focused on tropical diseases, typically referred to as neglected tropical diseases, otherwise known as Trypanosomiasis.We have also done quite a lot of work in snake venom biochemistry. The totality of our work is focused on how to look for antidotes to treat all these illnesses.”
He is a recipient of the 2013 George Forster prize which is administered by the prestigious Alexander Humboldt Foundation in Germany. His words “The award I received in February this year is the George Forster prize,being administered by the Alex Humboldt foundation in Germany. It is important to say that the Humboldt foundation is one of the agencies in Germany that prides itself in scouting for excellence all over the world, for people to come to Germany to do research. I have been a Humboldt fellow as far back as 1995/1997. But the George Forster prize is a special one, which the board administers, and the prize is given strictly for excellence, and the selection is quite a rigorous exercise.”
First African winner
He is the first black African to win the George Forster prize “My being awarded this prize means that I am now very much visible for bigger prizes, like the Nobel prize. Thats one very key and tremendous breakthrough in this. Most of the Humboldt prize winners in recent past,have also emerged as Nobel Prize winners, and one interesting thing is that quite a number of them actually came for our investiture when we were given the prize.”
The Humboldt Foundation strives for excellence. The whole world is its catchment area, and all the George Forster prizes could be given to a single country. Or they could spread it as much as the rigours of the exercise demand. It takes close to six months to get a full evaluation, says Professor Nok. Again he comments on the prize “One key thing is to recognise the uniqueness of the work that I have been doing on Trypanosomiasis, and the effort to get a DNA vaccine in the treatment of this disease, as well as other tropical diseases, like Malaria. This has attracted sa a lot of attention, not just locally here, but also in the whole world.” He adds that Trypanosomiasis is a disease which affects great numbers of poor people on the African continent, and it is one which affects not just the human being, but also domestic animals and animals in the wild.
He says that a large number of cattle on the continent perish annually on account of the disease, and that at present there is no cure for the disease. So, if a vaccine is found for the treatment of Trypanosomiasis, it will turn around the economy of many households, for they will be blessed with more productive and stable livestock, and will have resources for other projects.
Some 75 million cattle are exposed to Trypanosomiasis annually on the continent.” This has impact on the economy of the country, as well as the economy of those who manage the cattle, he stresses. There is a huge migration from Nigeria’s Tsetse belt. According to him “When you go to the Tsetse fly belt, you find that most people who live within that area typically run away from the belt entirely, and some go to distant places. You can now understand why you have migration of cattle rearers from one end to the other.
In most cases, apart from social or economic reasons, it has to do with safe places, where their cows can graze. In terms of Trypanosomiasis, we do not have so much of it in the country, but certainly in parts of Benue state, we still have human Trypanosomiasis, and, of course, the Delta and Edo area. We have serious concerns in respect of Trypanosomiasis in Cameroon and also in Central Africa.”
He says that Nigeria has progressed handsomely in terms of genetic engineering, drawing attention to Nigeria’s National Biotechnology Development Agency “At the moment we have that the national board that oversees practices of genetic engineering in the country, known as the National Biotechnology Development Agency. This agency is the repository of all the genetic materials that you are able to make. Whether it is from plants, whether it is from animals, or whether it has to do with drug development.
So, I won’t say that we have gone very far, because even for now the law that regulates the practice of the usage of genes is not yet approved by the National Assembly. So most of the things we do, we have to do in collaboration with the National Biotechnology Agency, because our laboratiories have to be passed by an international body. The key reason is because of safety concerns, once you begin to use genetic elements. I won’t say that we have progressed significantly, but we are still growing.”
Now, he speaks on challenges he has faced while seeking a vaccine for Trypanosomiasis. The major challenge has been that of funding,he says “Much of the funding is usually from external agencies, and collaborations we have with researchers in Germany, Japan, the United States and in England.” He adds that there has been a constant power problem.
“We have tried to improve quite a number of things, especially in some of the work that we do locally. One typical area has to do with power. If you have to run a PCR, that is when you want to make several copies of a gene, its supposed to run for one hour, and if after 50 minutes the light goes off,you have lost everything, which means you have not done anything.
If you see the laboratory where we operate, you will see quite a number of inverters which we operate to keep our refrigerators permanently on. “The next difficulty is the fact that most of the reagents used in the laboratories have to be sought from Europe or the USA.”
These are not things that you can get in Lagos or Abuja, he says. “They are rare reagents, and they have to be flown in under special conditions. Quite often than not, we have problems at the customs. They would actually want to see what you have with you .But some of these things are not supposed to be opened.and we have been able to develop some rapport with officials at Kaduna and Abuja, and we have been able to bring in our materials in good time.”
There have been a number of successes along the path of this unique work. He notes that this has occurred in the area of capacity building “Our major focus has been to raise a critical mass of scientists in the area. There will then be quite a number of people involved in the work, just as it happens elsewhere. I am proud to say that we have people who have worked on this project, who are currently professors, and have published very well in elitist journals, and we have been able to access grants. One very impressive thing is that we are recognised worldwide,and this has been able to put the University on the global academic map.”
He speaks glowingly of a colleague “I supervised him when he was doing his Masters, as well as the PhD, and he was able to get some of the top most world class Fellowships. Many scholars abroad are now eager to travel to the Ahmadu Bello University to work with Professor Nok and his team.”
He says “On account of our publications, we have been able to get people who are anxious to work with us. We have people who, right now as we speak want us to work towards getting the Wellcome Trust Grant. In all the partnerships we have been engaged in, we have never worked as junior partners. That alone is exciting, to get people who want to come here. Right now, we have some Germans who want to get Humboldt Fellowships to come to ABU as Humboldt Fellows. That is the zenith of any educational institution in Europe. Now, we have people who want to come to the Ahmadu Bello University as post doctorate Humboldt Fellows coming from Europe. That tells you the direction you are moving.”
On facilities needed to do tests for DNA in the country,he states “The question whether these tests can be done here,the answer is yes. I want to say that we don’t have these facilities here yet. The facilities have not been so tailored for that purpose. Nigeria is too rich to say it cannot have the items required to set up a laboratory for DNA testing.
I don’t think to set up a laboratory to run such a test should even cost up to half a billion Naira. The police incidentally have a forensic laboratory. I don’t know if they do digital face analysis. But in respect of gene analysis, I don’t think they have that capacity for now, and that’s what I think they are trying to pursue. I think it’s a wonderful initiative, if the police finally have a DNA laboratory.”
He also speaks of a growing concern now which is to produce a ‘transgenic insect. That is a genetically modified Tsetse fly, that can bite you,and when it does, it will take the Trypanosome out of you, thereby shutting off the life cycle of the Trypanosome which then dies off. So the genetically modified Tsetse flies would then be controlling the disease.”
He notes however that on the converse “If you wipe away all the Tsetse flies, some very serious epidemic will arise. Thats very true. If we eliminate all the Anopheles mosquitoes, some other disease will emerge, and you will be shocked.”
Every creature that has been created has its place and function in Creation, he seems to be saying here. His is an exciting world of research into the Tsetse fly, and a constant navigation among parasites in the search for the cure for Trypanosomiasis.