Sunny Ohia is a professor of Pharmacology at the Texas Southern University, United States. With over three decades’ wealth of experience in the field of pharmacology and pharmaceutical research, he has served in various capacities in academia in the US, the UK and Canada. Some of the previous posts he held were: dean, College of Pharmacy, University of Houston; dean, College of Pharmacy, Creighton University; associate dean for administration, School of Pharmacy and Health Professionals; chair, Department of Pharmaceutical and Administrative Science, School of Pharmacy and Health Professionals. In this exclusive interview, with Temitope Obayendo, he advocates the training of pharmacologists and pharmaceutical scientists to be patterned according to what obtains in the developed world, saying this will enhance capacity development in the Nigerian healthcare delivery system. He also pinpoints lack of funds as a real time challenge to infrastructural development in research and development. Excerpts:
Could you share with us what informed your interest in Pharmacology?
As a child, I was always curious about life and nature and wondered why and how things worked. In secondary school, my favourite subjects were Physics, Chemistry and Biology, and knowledge of these disciplines led to my focus on science and research as a way of understanding how human life was created and what happens in the disease state.
My interest in scientific research was further enhanced during my undergraduate days as a student in the Faculty of Science, University of Ibadan (UI). I enjoyed classes in Chemistry and Biology and my interest in understanding how chemicals interacted with biological systems led me to choose Pharmacology as a major for my first degree programme. In those days, UI offered a Bachelor of Science degree in Pharmacology.
After my stint in the National Youth Service Corps, the late Professor David Okpako of the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, UI, gave me an opportunity to pursue graduate studies with him as my supervisor. Other former students who knew Prof. Okpako, they will agree with me that his passion for research was infectious, and it is not a surprise that I caught the “bug” and decided on a career as a researcher in Pharmacology.
After completing the master’s degree with Prof. Okpako, I enrolled in the PhD programme in Pharmacology at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, United Kingdom. On completion of the doctoral degree, I was offered an opportunity to pursue postdoctoral studies in Neuropharmacology by Professor Chris Triggle of the Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada.
At that point in my life, it became obvious to me that a career as a scientist with interest in Pharmacology was exciting and that I could carve out a niche by researching on drugs and processes that will introduce new therapeutic entities for the treatment of diseases.
From Pharmacology, you advanced to Ophthalmic Pharmacology. How easy was it for you to add ophthalmic knowledge to Pharmacology?
After my first postdoctoral fellowship in Neuropharmacology, I had the opportunity to continue a second postdoctoral training in Ophthalmology and visual sciences from the Kentucky Lions Eye Research Centre, at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, in Louisville, Kentucky, USA. I learnt a lot about the eye at this centre and was able to apply my knowledge of Pharmacology to eye diseases.
Consequently, I have been able to develop viable research programmes in Ophthalmic Pharmacology that have received funding from the National Institutes of Health, the pharmaceutical industry, and foundations until today. On reflection, I am glad that I specialised in Ophthalmic Pharmacology research – there are few scientists in this discipline worldwide – from which I am still making contributions to knowledge in the twilight years of my career.
Yes, it was easy to focus on researching on new drugs for eye diseases after my training in Louisville.
It appears that only few Nigerian clinical pharmacists are specialised in different areas of pharmacy practice. What is your view on this?
The evolution of clinically-oriented Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) degree in the US occurred in the late 1990s during my tenure as chair of the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Creighton University School of Pharmacy and Health Professions. Prior to this period, PharmD degree was awarded as a post-baccalaureate graduate degree. As it is obvious, the development of specialised clinical training for PharmD graduates via residency programmes and fellowships is still evolving in many US pharmacy programmes over the past two decades.
With collaboration from the Nigerian Association of Pharmacists and Pharmaceutical Scientists (NAPPSA), Nigerian pharmacy programmes recently adopted the PharmD degree as entry-level training for new practitioners. Consequently, it is premature to expect many Nigerian clinical pharmacists to be specialised in different areas of pharmacy practice.
I believe that the current effort, led by NAPPSA President, Teresa Pounds, to establish residency and fellowship programmes in Nigeria, will make a significant difference in the training and specialisation of clinical pharmacists in future.
Having made massive impacts in the educational system as regards Pharmacology, in the United States and Canada, what are the grey areas in the study of Pharmacology in Nigeria that should be addressed?
In the US, Canada and UK, the study of Pharmacology as a pharmaceutical science discipline is still ongoing but in a limited capacity because most graduates of this programme are expected to become researchers in academia, industry, or government. In the US, some pharmacy schools offer a pharmaceutical sciences degree in programmes that include Pharmacology and other pharmaceutical sciences disciplines; while the UK universities still offer Pharmacology as a distinct undergraduate discipline.
I agree with the current trend in the training of pharmacologists/pharmaceutical scientists in the developed countries since the primary emphasis should be placed on the training of pharmacists for healthcare systems and not scientists. I expect the training of pharmacologists/pharmaceutical scientists in Nigeria to follow the same trend as what is happening in the developed world.
As an astute researcher, how would you compare research and development in Nigeria to what obtains in the US and Canada?
There is no real basis for comparing pharmaceutical research and development in Nigeria to what is obtainable in the US, Canada or the other countries of the developed world because of the lack of adequate funding of infrastructure for these activities at home. For instance, as an academic researcher, I applied for and received funding from the pharmaceutical industry to assist them in developing new processes and testing new drug entities in my laboratory.
Basically, I utilised existing pharmacological protocols in my laboratory to test masked and unmasked compounds for these companies. Interestingly, some of the masked compounds I tested for one of the major manufacturers of ophthalmic drugs are currently in the market for treating eye diseases. Using this scenario, the pharmaceutical companies expected a better, more efficient, and unbiased testing of their compounds from academic researchers than from contract research companies. Incidentally, the pipeline for the discovery of new classes of drugs in the US has decreased significantly and the trend now is more of repurposing existing drugs for other uses or introduction of new formulations of existing drugs for better pharmacokinetic profiles. Clearly, due to the exorbitant costs of researching and developing new drug entities, the pharmaceutical industry in the US is facing its own challenges today.
As a basic pharmaceutical scientist, I am saddened by the relatively lack of new drug entities for research and development from the pharmaceutical industry in the developed world.
Being an academic who has led in various capacities in learning institutions, what are your thoughts on the Nigerian university leadership, and how can it be improved upon?
Yes, I had the unique opportunity to serve at most levels of academic leadership – department chair, associate dean, dean of a pharmacy programme and university vice president for academic affairs and provost – at three universities in the US. To the best of my knowledge, the academic leadership system in Nigerian universities is derived from the British system and consequently cannot be compared to my experiences in the US system. I defer to my fellow academic leaders in the Nigerian universities to provide ideas as to how its system can be improved upon.
What is your message for for Nigerian students who are aspiring to be like you?
In my role as a mentor to junior academic colleagues and students, I have had to answer this question several times! My typical answer to these colleagues is that firstly, they must develop interest and have passion/vision for what types of careers they hope to pursue in future. Secondly, they must set lofty goals and work assiduously to accomplish them. Thirdly, they should not perceive any barriers in their quest to attain their vision.
Perhaps, the most important advice for students, junior academic colleagues and practitioners is for them to enjoy whatever careers or professions that they have selected as part of their contribution to the society. In my experience, money should not be an initial driving force because with significant accomplishments in their careers/professions, the wealth factor eventually becomes a secondary goal!