TESTING TIMES

Chemo drugs too toxic for Africans — experts

Most chemo drugs have failed since they were tested in areas where people have a different gene composition from that of Africans

In Summary

• Chemo drugs are developed by big pharmaceuticals but used in areas that are different from the places they were tested.

• Chemotherapy drugs tested and tried in the US and other developed countries cannot work well here.

Kenyatta National Hospital
Kenyatta National Hospital
Image: FILE

Chemotherapy drugs used for cancer treatment in Kenya are toxic, hence the high rate of failures experienced in the course of managing the deadly condition.

Scientists from the University of Nairobi and research firm Advanced Genomic Solution Africa Ltd said their conclusion follows findings that Africans have a different genomic markup.

Dr Esther Maina of UoN and Billy Njuguna of AGS said test procedures, especially for prostate cancer and breast cancer, are not effective on the Kenyan population.

 

They told the Senate Health Committee last month that most chemo drugs have failed since they were tested in areas where people have a different gene composition from that of Africans.

“The challenge is that the genomic markup for Africans is different. Chemotherapy drugs tested and tried in the US and other developed countries cannot work well here,” Njuguna said.

“We can have a kind of genomic testing solution for cancer patients in Africa. We have advanced genomic tests that now cost less than $500 (Sh50,000). They are easy to use.” 

He said the proposed diagnosis would help to precisely identify the molecules of a drug that is sensitive to cancer patients in the continent.

“If you have a cancer patient with a known genetic markup, you are able to prescribe the right medication for cancer patients,” Njuguna said.

The medics’ concern is that chemo drugs are developed by big pharmaceuticals in different countries but are used in areas that are different from the places they were tested.

“We want to have our own chemo agent developed based on our genomic markup. This, we hope, will reduce cases of drugs failure by 60 per cent,” Njuguna said. 

 

On her part, Maina told senators that Kenyan researchers are keen to define the genomic bio-markups that are representative of the African population.

“In as much as we have all these drugs, they are not helping us since their toxicity is very high, which is unacceptable,” she said.

“Issues of diagnostics are different. For instance, the PSAI antigen test to detect prostate cancer is not effective on Kenyan men.”

Dr Maina said together with a team of cancer experts, the University of Nairobi has formed a research component called “For Us by Us” — a research drive geared for Africans by Africans.

“We must go back to the bench as we have the ability and know-how to combat this scourge. We must ask questions,” she said.

The medics were among a team of professionals invited by the Senate Health Committee chaired by Michael Malinga (Trans Nzoia) to give views on the proposed amendments to the Cancer Prevention bill.

Present were Senators Abdullahi Ibrahim (Wajir and vice-chair of health committee), Beth Mugo (Nominated), John Kinyua (Laikipia) and Iman Falhada (Nominated).

Also present were Senators Okong’o Omogeni (Nyamira), Petronila Were (Nominated), Naomi Shiyonga (Nominated) and Fred Outa (Nyando).

The Bill, sponsored by Senator Abdullahi, seeks to amend the Cancer Prevention and Control Act to compel the 47 county governments to establish cancer centres.

The centres would offer screening, diagnostics, treatment and palliative care services, as well as counselling for families affected by the disease.

Senator Abdullahi further wants counties to implement the national government policy on the control of cancer, including prevention, diagnostic, treatment, rehabilitation and control of cancer.

The bill also wants county governments to ensure the provision of adequate personnel and equipment for the prevention and control of cancer.

The devolved units would also be required to train health professionals on the management of the condition.

If passed, county executive committee members will open and maintain a county cancer register, information which is to be presented to the National Cancer Institute of Kenya.

Participants at the public forum raised questions on how counties will achieve the objectives in the wake of resource challenges in the health sector.

They asked senators to include in the bill a clause compelling health service providers to ensure any patient seeking treatment or early cancer diagnosis is subjected to genomic tests.

Others felt the law should be further amended so no person is denied cancer screening and diagnostic services for lack of funds.

A cancer survivor at the session vouched for alternative treatment, such as herbal medicine, as another way out, other than relying heavily on toxic drugs.