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This article is part of the supplement: Health innovation in sub-Saharan Africa

Open Access Research

The road to commercialization in Africa: lessons from developing the sickle-cell drug Niprisan

Kumar Perampaladas, Hassan Masum, Andrew Kapoor, Ronak Shah, Abdallah S Daar and Peter A Singer*

Author Affiliations

McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health, University Health Network and University of Toronto, 101 College Street Suite 406, Toronto ON, M5G 1L7, Canada

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BMC International Health and Human Rights 2010, 10(Suppl 1):S11  doi:10.1186/1472-698X-10-S1-S11

Published: 13 December 2010

Abstract

Background

Developing novel drugs from traditional medicinal knowledge can serve as a means to improve public health. Yet countries in sub-Saharan Africa face barriers in translating traditional medicinal knowledge into commercially viable health products. Barriers in moving along the road towards making a new drug available include insufficient manufacturing capacity; knowledge sharing between scientists and medical healers; regulatory hurdles; quality control issues; pricing and distribution; and lack of financing. The case study method was used to illustrate efforts to overcome these barriers during the development in Nigeria of Niprisan – a novel drug for the treatment of sickle cell anemia, a chronic blood disorder with few effective therapies.

Discussion

Building on the knowledge of a traditional medicine practitioner, Nigeria’s National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development (NIPRD) developed the traditional herbal medicine Niprisan. The commercialization of Niprisan reached a number of commercial milestones, including regulatory approval in Nigeria; securing US-based commercial partner XeChem; demonstrating clinical efficacy and safety; being awarded orphan drug status by the US Food and Drug Administration; and striking important relationships with domestic and international groups. Despite these successes, however, XeChem did not achieve mainstream success for Niprisan in Nigeria or in the United States. A number of reasons, including inconsistent funding and manufacturing and management challenges, have been put forth to explain Niprisan’s commercial demise. As of this writing, NIPRD is considering options for another commercial partner to take the drug forward.

Summary

Evidence from the Niprisan experience suggests that establishing benefit-sharing agreements, fostering partnerships with established research institutions, improving standardization and quality control, ensuring financial and managerial due diligence, and recruiting entrepreneurial leaders capable of holding dual scientific and business responsibilities should be incorporated into future drug development initiatives based on traditional medicines. Country-level supporting policies and conditions are also important. With more experience and support, and an improved environment for innovation, developing new drugs from traditional medicines may be an attractive approach to addressing diseases in sub-Saharan Africa and other regions.