In early April 2022, Professor Oladapo Adenrele Ashiru was named secretary-general of the International Federation of Fertility Societies (IFFS). This followed an election that took place at the General Assembly of the World Fertility Congress, in Athens, Greece. The IFFS is the world body on fertility and a non-state organisation that has an official relationship with the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Ashiru is the first black person to assume such a prominent position in the 54-year history of the Federation, and to most people who had been following the trajectory of his illustrious career, it was a case of putting a perfectly round peg in a perfectly round hole. Indeed, having become the youngest ever professor of Medicine in Africa at the historic age of 32, it was obvious that the specialist in reproductive endocrinology and assisted reproductive technology (ART) was destined to be a global phenomenon.
To start with, it was Ashiru who pioneered the now popular technique of in-vitro fertilisation and embryo transfer (IVF-ET) in West Africa in 1983 (experimental) and 1984 (human). It was also he, who, in collaboration with Prof. Osato Giwa-Osagie, delivered the first IVF baby in Black Africa (comprising West, East and Central Africa), at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), on 17 March, 1989.
It is particularly noteworthy that, at the time Ashiru chose to blaze the trail in ART, such practice was considered a taboo in Nigeria, due to ignorance and religious sentiments. Consequently, many couples battling infertility had to wait endlessly for a “miracle”, with many falling victim of the shenanigans of quack practitioners and dubious spiritual healers.
It was this sad reality, as well as the understanding that many cases of infertility are preventable and treatable, that spurred Ashiru to develop an uncommon passion for reproductive health as a young medical graduate. This passion sparked his research interest in assisted reproductive technology, and in 1979, he discovered and reported the follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) positive feedback mechanism.
This ground-breaking discovery has been instrumental in assisted conception technologies, especially in the use of exogenous FSH injection in ovulation stimulation. Most remarkably, following Ashiru’s pioneering research efforts and the successful delivery of the first IVF baby in Nigeria, millions of previously infertile couples in the country and other parts of Africa have continued to find succour and relief, with the successful delivery of their babies through ART.
The iconic professor continues to advance in his researches and contributions to reproductive health. He has improved his initial discoveries for sperm insemination, and most recently, introduced the use of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) and embryo selection to remove abnormalities like Down’s Syndrome, Sickle Cell and for family balancing. In all, he believes that there is no contradiction between assisted reproduction and his Christian faith.
According to him, “There is nothing that goes on in science which has not been permitted. If God does not want this to happen, it will not succeed. That knowledge to do it has been granted and has been permitted by the almighty God. When I go into the theatre every day, I pray before I transfer the embryo. The success rate in IVF is not guaranteed, so, you need heavenly blessings to go through it to succeed, apart from knowing your science.”
Prof. Ashiru is currently the chief medical director of the MART Group of Clinics, comprising the Medical Art Centre, the Mart Medicare (high risk obstetrics and neonatal care) and the Mart-Life Detox Clinic, the first modern Mayr clinic in Africa. He is also the CEO of the newly established Institute of Reproductive Medicine, Lagos.
His expertise as a reproductive endocrinologist has spanned over 40 years, and demonstrated in various parts of the world. He is thus one of the world’s most eminent specialists in the field of fertility treatment.
Journey to impact
Prof. Ashiru was born on 3 November, 1950, in Ijebu-Ode, Ogun State. His mother was one of the first nursing sisters in Western Nigeria and his father was an inspector of taxes. He attended Christ Church School, Ijebu-Ode, before proceeding to Adeola Odutola College, in same Ijebu Ode. He graduated with the award for the overall best performing student.
Soon after, in 1969, he gained admission to the College of Medicine, University of Lagos. He proved to be such an exceptional student that by the time he got to 200 Level, the college had arranged for him to become a student demonstrator in Anatomy. He graduated in 1974, and thereafter proceeded for his residency training.
It was around this time that he began to develop interest in assisted reproduction. According to him, “I learnt every single rotation that I needed to learn. But during this period also, I had worked in the Community Health Department. I also had a mother who had a maternity centre, helping people to conceive. That was where I started developing an interest in reproductive medicine.”
In 1977, Ashiru proceeded, on invitation, to the University of Nebraska, Omaha, where he obtained a PhD in Cell Biology and Anatomy and Endocrinology, in 1979. During this time he worked together with Prof. Charles Blake to know the mechanisms that control ovulation. Before the completion of the programme, he had perfected the technique and consequently made an assistant professor and reproductive endocrinologist at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology.
Service to fatherland
Despite appeals to remain at the University of Nebraska, Ashiru returned to Nigeria in 1980 to help with the teaching of Anatomy at the College of Medicine, University of Lagos. This was at a time when anatomy professors at the college were being recruited from overseas. He also helped to start postgraduate training in Anatomy at the college. It was in recognition of his efforts and scholarly contributions that he was made professor in October 1983. (His years of teaching, as a student demostrator, were also put into consideration).
In 1994, Ashiru opened the popular, Medical Art Centre, Lagos, with the mission to ensure that each couple in Nigeria is able to access the latest cutting-edge technology available in other parts of the world for Assisted Reproduction. According to him, “We place premium on compassion, professionalism, clinical research work and the long-term happiness of every hopeful couple that approaches us, while being mindful of the financial implications of ART all over the world.”
Between 1995 and 2010, while still serving as the chief medical director of Medical Art Centre, Ashiru also served as adjunct Professor and IVF lab director at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, Urbana-Champaign. In 2013, he incorporated the Mart Medicare Children Hospital, which provides top-notch care for pregnant women and new-born babies. The Mart-Life Detox Clinic was incorporated shortly after. He ultimately assumed chairmanship of the MART Group in November 2021.
In addition to his outstanding contributions as a medical practitioner, Ashiru has also published over 140 scientific papers and abstracts in peer-reviewed national and international journals.
Recognitions and awards
Prof. Ashiru has been variously recognised for his accomplishments in Medicine and pioneering works in reproductive health, in particular. Aside from being a prominent member of the Executive Council of the International Federation of Fertility Societies, he is also a member of the International Federation of Association of Anatomists and a member of WHO Expert Committee on Infertility. He is the present president of the Academy of Medicine Specialties of Nigeria, as well as that of the Africa Reproductive Care Society.
In 2005, the Federal Government of Nigeria honoured Ashiru with the Officer of the Order of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (OFR) award. In 2011, the College of Medicine, University of Lagos, honoured him with the Distinguished Professor Award, for immense contributions and meritorious service to the college and the University of Lagos. Also, in 2017, he was given the African Child Prize Award for Discovery in Science and Innovation, by the African Child Foundation. He has received many more recognitions and awards.