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‘Metaphor’ – A paradigm shift in Nigerian healthcare

JBS Foundation opens centre to promote gerontology, improve elderly healthcare

On Thursday, 9th of November, an event took place on Oba Akran Street, Ikeja.

It was the official opening of an unusual medical outfit with the rather odd name of ‘METAPHOR’.

It was not your run of the mill hospital or conventional diagnostic centre where the business began to tick over as soon as the front door was flung open. It was, rather, a concept of investment with medium-to-long term maturity that was scarce in Nigeria.

With METAPHOR, when you first got to hear of it, the first challenge was to understand the concept, and the sheer audacity of the young men who had put it together. The second was to assure yourself of the bona fides of it, that it was not just a shop front for collecting local biological specimens for use in foreign laboratory experiments.

To borrow the words of the founders, in their glossy brochure, ‘Metaphor is a diagnostics- focused Contract Research Organisation (CRO)…that offers Clinical Research as a Care Option in sub-Saharan Africa.’

The company was designed to partner with other CROs, biotechnology firms, and academic research institutions to develop and test new detection and treatment techniques for a wide range of diseases, from cancers to infectious diseases.

This was a capability that had long been missing in sub-Saharan Africa. It has made the African a net consumer of new technologies and products in Medicine, without being a significant contributor to that advancement. Worse still, there was an ’exclusion bias’ in the design and marketing of new products, including drugs, which may have been trialled in other races, but which have not been sufficiently tested for efficacy and safety in Africans.

Innovation in Health is a vast field into which billions of US dollars are channelled every year, from government and private resources. It is the basis of a huge invisible economy in which sub-Saharan Africa is virtually a non-participant. When people talk about health spend in Nigeria, they are talking about building hospitals and buying equipment and medications, but not about the huge thinking and labour that goes into creating new products and tools. It is laughable when sentimental arguments are mobilised in crisis moments such as the COVID19 pandemic about the huge cost at which the innovative products, whether they are drugs or vaccines or equipment, are retailed to African countries, and the fact that the innovating Euro-American countries decide to meet their own needs first, before thinking about the needs of dependent others.

Translational Science is a huge and crucial need that a society such as Nigeria must participate in as a strategic imperative for its own survival. The Research and Development budget of Pfizer International is more that the total money spent annually on Research and Development in Health in the whole of Africa. That is food for thought, and evidence that new thinking and structures are required so that Nigeria will not be perpetually at the mercy of other people who think up new cures for cancer and other diseases.

According to the youthful avatars who have teamed up at METAPHOR, in Lagos, Nigeria, against all odds, there is ‘insufficient diagnostic spend to spur quality lab growth and support biopharma’ in Nigeria. Health innovations are not coming from the Universities and academics in the country. Even the ones coming from elsewhere, which will ultimately be sold to Nigerians at huge cost, cannot be locally tested and customised during the period of their development because there are no laboratories with the capabilities to do the assays and other analyses necessary. Promising local herbs cannot be tested and passed through the rigorous standards required to enter the mainstream of the pharmaceutical world.

The duo that came together to fill this challenging niche are Tunde Animashaun (CEO) and Timothy Amukele (CSO). Tunde has a bachelor’s degree in clinical laboratory science from Morgan State University, USA, and a Master of Public Health from Johns Hopkins University. He is co-founder and CEO of Metaphor Laboratory in Maryland. Timothy obtained an MD from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in 2006, and an Executive MBA from Quantic school of Business and Technology. He is the Vice President and Global Laboratory Medical Director of ICON plc, one of the leading Clinical Research Organisations in the world.

Read also: Nigeria declares state of emergency in health sector

Attending the opening ceremony of METAPHOR, beyond your ruminations on its unique value proposition, turns out to be something of an emotional home-coming experience for you. You run into Princess Tychus, whose son is among the management group. As head of the Lion’s Club, she had worked with you to set up the Cancer Centre in LASUTH. The original site you allocated was near the present Chapel. The original name of the centre was ‘Cancer Screening and Treatment Centre’, implying there was the promise of a radiotherapy machine down the line. The College of Medicine complained about radiation risk, and you had decided to move the site close to the outside gate, near the mortuary.

Tunde, the CEO, is gracious. He knew your son, Mayowa, at Model College, Kankon, he says. There is a strong presence of old Kankon school friends among the young men present.

Aduragbemi Ogunbanke breezes into the reception straight from the airport, travelling from the UK, carrying his backpack. He is one of those friends and is now a Professor at the London School of Hygiene. After his spontaneous prostration, you remind him he used to sing in the choir at the LASUTH chapel as a medical student. Does he still have time for such edifying exertions? He smiles ruefully.

The ceremony to cut the tape and declare the Centre open is performed by Fela Durotoye. He makes a beautiful, off the cuff speech, as usual, about how the diaspora is bracing to turn ‘Japa’ to ‘Japada’ – with ‘Hope Renewed’, and with the youthful investors of METAPHOR blazing the trail.

After all that, it is time for cocktails, canapes, and conversation.