Kenyan Scientist in Major Medical Breakthrough

The passion of many hunters is to bring back the big game.

But Dr George Njoroge, the Kenyan scientist who discovered a potential cure for hepatitis C, says his mission is to “hunt, arrest, and exterminate viruses” that spread diseases that kill millions of people annually.

Dr Njoroge developed the drug Victrelis that was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration on May 13.

It is a 200-milligram capsule taken three times a days with food that offers “a greater chance of cure for some patients’ hepatitis C infection compared to currently available therapy,” according to a FDA press release.

Chronic hepatitis C can cause cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer. It affects 170 million people worldwide.

Dr Njoroge’s has been a search-and-destroy mission that augurs well for humanity as the days when the virus had a field day in human body are now numbered.

The new research on protease inhibitors developed by Dr Njoroge, a graduate of Thika High School and the University of Nairobi with a degree in chemistry, ushers in an era of developing inhibitors that stop the evasive viruses from multiplying in the body.

It is good news in the medical world because most viral diseases have hitherto defied cure.

They would take anything thrown at them until Dr Njoroge and a team of US scientists based in Kenilworth in New Jersey, made a major scientific breakthrough by developing a new molecule that was used to develop the drug that kills certain types of viruses.

The drug is the property of Merck, the publicly traded New Jersey-based global drug company.

Merck spokesperson Caroline Lappetito, speaking from Merck headquarters in Whitehouse, New Jersey, said  that Dr Njoroge was instrumental in the discovery, design of the research, and the development of Victrelis.

As Director of Medicinal Chemistry at Merck laboratories, Dr Njoroge discovered boceprevir, the active ingredient in the drug that is being marketed under the brand name Victrelis to treat patients with hepatitis C.

Details of how it was discovered are documented in the journal Accounts of Chemical Research of January 2008, Volume 41, Number 1.

Dr Njoroge says the search for a cure for infections caused by viruses is one of the toughest jobs.

“Viruses are elusive, evasive and conniving. They are masters of all known military strategies,” he said.

Viruses are experts in camouflage and subterfuge, he said, and they can hide and blend into most body cells where they cause havoc while devouring their victim’s cells.

They attack, retreat and mount a vicious counterattack and can even mutate. “They also play hide and seek very well, but my job is to ferret them out of the human body,” Dr Njoroge said from his New Jersey lab.

Dr Njoroge’s war is waged in labs and his special forces are 25 scientists from all over the world who have been working since 1996 to develop the new drug.

How does this drug differ from previous treatments? “This is the first medicine that cures hepatitis C. Previous therapies only increased the body immunity that lowered the level of viral infection,” he said.

The medical fraternity has hailed the drug as a major scientific breakthrough.

One of the panelists who approved the medicine, Dr Lawrence Friedman, chair of the Department of Medicine at Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Newton, Massachusetts, said Dr Njoroge’s discovery was a dream come true.

He said the drug had achieved 60 to 70 per cent efficacy in curing chronic hepatitis C, which represents a major medical advance.

After 24 weeks the virus had been erased from the blood of up to nearly three-quarters of the sample patients who had been taking the drug.

Dr Njoroge acknowledges that this breakthrough could not have been possible without the support of other teams at Merck.

“We collaborated with others experts like biologists who specialise in drug metabolism and pharmacologists who study how drugs act in the body,” he said.

Merck, he added, has given him an opportunity to pursue his lifetime passion of making scientific inventions.

“It is an exciting experience, and one process leads to another, and you are never sure what will be next in the world of scientific investigations,” he said.

Dr Njoroge has developed two other drugs that are still undergoing clinical trial. Narlaprevir®, another inhibitor that is 10 times more active than Victrelis®, is in advanced clinical trials.

He also discovered Sarasar, which is being tested for the treatment of so-called solid cancers.

In a study being carried out by Boston University Hospital, Sarasar has also been found to be effective in treating children with progeria, a rare disease that accelerates aging in toddlers and leads to premature deaths.

Dr Njoroge has registered 75 discoveries with the US Patent Office and published 110 articles in professional peer-referenced journals.

Could such discoveries be made in Kenya? Dr Njoroge says Kenya has highly skilled scientists, but they are let down by lack of the research opportunities that lead to discoveries.

The universities that are expected to be the vanguard of scientific research have taken the rear guard by investing very little in research and development, he said.

“We have the human resources, but the capital is lacking,” he said, adding that Kenya also needs a professional agency like FDA that has the capability to monitor new inventions so that they meet the highest scientific standards.

Dr Njoroge collaborates with local scientists and is a frequent presenter at scientific conferences. He also mentors young people and encourages them to join the world of scientific research.

What does Njoroge have to say to students who often shun the sciences at school and college?

“Basic sciences like chemistry, physics and biology are now becoming useful because of the new developments in biotechnology, food science, medicine and bio-engineering, and students should aim high by doing advanced degree courses and being patient in their work.

“Pick an area of specialisation and concentrate on it instead of being a jack of all trades,” he advised.