Scientists are trained to solve societal problems through innovative research. Various transferable skills are however needed to achieve the aim of any research. Aside critical thinking, project management and time management skills, ability to effectively communicate the findings of research to various stakeholders is of great importance to any research scientist.
Effective research findings communication entails conveying the findings of research to the appropriate audience using appropriate methods. For example, research findings can be communicated to professionals via conferences (local or international), scientific publications in peer-reviewed journals. Technical jargons are allowed and are easily understood by the professionals in such field of research. However, the above-aforementioned methods cannot be used to communicate research findings to the public except the findings are communicated in layman’s language devoid of technical jargons. Although scientists are encouraged to communicate their research findings to the public and professional colleagues as this will help to showcase the impact of their research activities, there is a growing misnomer in how scientists are doing this, especially in Nigeria.
In the last few years, headlines such as “Nigerian scientist develops so and so” is becoming rampant. For example, August 29, 2019, it was reported in one of the major newspapers in Nigeria that a “Nigerian scientist develops cancer drugs from African plants”. While this could be a laudable achievement, there is a misnomer in how it was reported. The original report was an interview with the female scientist in one of the Universities in Nigeria by a freelance journalist. The original interview that was held in Abuja was published on 23 August 2019 by a reputable foreign publishing firm. The title of the interview was “Developing cancer drugs from African plants” in which the research scientist discussed her research activities involving plants. A thorough review of the original interview shows that the scientist never claimed to have developed a drug to cure cancer but rather she stated that her research aims at:
“identifying potent, safe and effective anticancer agents from Nigerian plants. We have screened and confirmed the cytotoxic activities of extracts of the drumstick (Moringa oleifera) and soursop (Annona muricata) trees as well as the native Nigerian shrub Peristrophe bicalyculata on cervical carcinoma and fetal lung carcinoma cell lines. We also studied what anticancer mechanisms these plants exhibit. We found that these plants act in the body through” One of the studies involving P. bicalyculata was published in the Romanian Biotechnological Letters in 2013. It was concluded in the study that “methanolic ethylacetate fraction of Peristrophe bicalyculata is a potential source of chemotherapeutic agent”
Early August 2019, various news outlets in the country reported that a “Nigerian Research Fellow develops anti-tuberculosis metal drugs in India”. The Indian mentor to the Nigerian researcher stated in the original interview that “When we compared the metallodrugs with the original anti-TB drugs, the metallodrugs were more effective. We did an in-vitro test against bacteria. The metals we have chosen are non-harmful to human beings. Also, we found that of all the metallodrugs, the copper complex of ciprofloxacin is most effective”. One of the online news outlets stated that “she has been able to create medicine like ciprofloxacin HCl, ofloxacin, pyrazinamide and moxifloxacin HCl”. However, the Nigeria scientist never claimed to have “create ciprofloxacin HCL”.
Stages of drug discovery in brief
Drug discovery involves three major stages, namely, pre-clinical, clinical and post clinical.
The pre-clinical stage involves laboratory investigation (also known as in-vitro or test tube) of various sources of potential drug agents that could have inhibitory or destructive (anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-cancer, anti-malaria e.t.c) effects. It is the preliminary stage of the expensive drug discovery journal that could last for several years. While there could be a lot of success in this stage, this does not guarantee success at the next stage. Successful results at the stage then proceed to the second step, which is the clinical stage. Depending on the funding source(s), the confidentiality of the potential of a drug is usually maintained. Secondly, the results could be published in scientific journals to enable scrutiny by other research scientists who are expert in that field. This stage could also involve patenting of the results, especially the “novel active substance”.
The clinical stage involves testing of the positive results obtained in stage one on live animal or human subjects (in-vivo). This process aims to investigate the behaviour of the “potential drug” in animals or humans as the behaviour could be completely different from that of in-vitro. This stage also helps to identify any potential side effect of the “potential drug”. This stage cannot proceed without adequate approval of various government agencies. Once, the approval is obtained, then the clinical study (called trial) would be carried out in comparison with control. If successful after various trials, the last stage – post clinical sets in. The last stage is the public announcement of the “new drug”. The drug could then be mass-produced and made available to the public.
In conclusion, as could be seen from the brief explanation of how drugs are developed, the Nigerian scientist has not developed cancer drugs from African plants but rather, she has extracted and characterized (pre-clinical stage) active African plant phytochemicals that could be a potential cancer drug if successful at the other stages of drug development especially the clinical stage. The newspaper title would have been” Nigeria scientist identified active ingredients in African plants that could be a potential anti-cancer drug” of Nigeria scientist was successful in the first stage of developing a new potential anti-cancer drug. This will help avoid public confusion and misnomer in communicating research findings. While scientists are the best to describe and interpret the results of their research, the service of experienced research/science communicators could be employed. Newspaper outlets need to confirm directly from the original source(s) before publishing reports on “Nigerian scientist develops” so and so as this could be misleading the public and lastly, public communication of research findings could also be carried out through the researchers’ institutions.