Profile: Professor Victor Anomah Ngu, Cameroon
Born: 1926, Buea, Republic of Cameroon
Education: Secondary schooling in Sasse, Cameroon, and Ibadan, Nigeria; University of Ibadan (1948 – 1950); St Mary’s Hospital Medical School, University of London (1951– 1954).
Career: Professor of Surgery, University of Ibadan (1965 - 1971); Professor of Surgery, Université de Yaoundé (1971 – 1974); Vice Chancellor, Université de Yaoundé (1974 - 1982); President of the Association of African Universities (1981 – 1982); Minister of Public Health, Government of Cameroon (1984 - 1988); Director of the Cancer Research Laboratory, Université de Yaoundé (1984 - ); Founder - Hope Clinic Cameroon (1991)
Awards: Grand Commandant de l’Ordre de la Valeur, Cameroun; Albert Lasker Medical Research Award in Clinical Cancer Chemotherapy (1972); Dr. Samuel Lawrence Adesuyi Award and Medal by the West African Health Community (1989); Leon H. Sullivan Achievement Award, U.S.A. (2003).
This is the first in WIPO Magazine’s series of interviews with distinguished scientists and researchers in developing countries. Intellectual property is a system designed to reward and stimulate innovation and creativity, and each scientist in this series embodies these characteristics.
The medical career of Cameroonian doctor Victor Anomah Ngu spans 50 years and three continents. His cancer research won him international acclaim, and he is currently working on a therapeutic vaccine for use in treatment of HIV/AIDS. At 78 years old, Professor Ngu retains both his joy in discovery, and his commitment to science in the service of mankind. We spoke to Professor Ngu at his Clinique d’Espoir (Clinic of Hope) in Yaounde, Cameroon.
Professor Ngu, could you start by telling us how you first become interested in becoming a scientist?
From childhood, I’ve always been impressed by nature, by things that happen around me. I remember that in the hills where I grew up in Bamenda I could see stars very clearly, and I was very impressed by this. And as I grew up I was always wondering about these stars? How beautiful they are and why do they shine? From then on of course, the rest was natural. I could not help but try to find out more about the wonderful things about me. I think all scientists must have an inherent sense of wonder.
Later, I went to a secondary school in a place called Sasse in the south west of this country. We were the first lot of students and we had no equipment. Our first science laboratory had been in a horse stable. We had a science teacher, a man from Birmingham, England, who was a very good scientist and he inspired us about science. He made most of our science equipment, he made microscopes in front of us and they worked.
I think to know something, to understand something, can give more pleasure intellectually than any other thing that I can think of. If you won the lottery you could never get as much pleasure as knowing why something is.
You have talked about moments of great discovery. Many people say that science today needs many millions of dollars in order to achieve such moments.
I don’t quite agree with that. Many great discoveries of the past centuries were made without a great deal of money. Science is concerned with the identification and the solution of a scientific problem. The definition of a problem is almost as important as the solution. Take mobile telephones, for example. The discovery of the mobile telephone came from the fact that somebody dreamt that we could have communications which are not fixed on the wall as they used to be before. That was a more important idea than actually finding the telephone. Most of the time, people try to solve problems without clearly defining or knowing what the real problem is. So when you say you’re spending a lot of money in science and research, I think that some of that money may be badly spent because people don’t have a clear idea of what they want, what the problem is. If you can’t define a problem, you can’t discover. Money is of course required to transform a discovery into a product; that is a different matter.
How did your interest in cancer research evolve?
Cancer was one of the things that hit me right from the start. As a surgeon I tried to remove the cancers. It was a very traumatic and very destructive process. I was convinced that surgery was not the answer. Then the Rockefeller Foundation in1962 gave me a fellowship to train as a cancer chemotherapist. I became interested in treating a tumour called Burkitt’s lymphoma1.The tumour was successfully treated with chemotherapy and so in 1972 I got this award2 in America. When I came back to Ibadan in 1963 I was able to practice chemotherapy, but again the results were good in some cases but not very good with other kinds of tumour. And then it occurred to me that chemotherapy was not so good because tumour cells are in fact cells of the patient’s body and a drug that would kill a cancer cell would also kill normal cells. Most cancer chemotherapeutic agents do this.
How did this lead to your current work?
After ten or more years of cancer work in Ibadan I became disillusioned with chemotherapy on tumours. I was left with the idea that because cancer cells behave differently from the patient’s cells, there must be something that can distinguish them from the normal cells. This is why I went into what I will now call immunotherapy of cancer. Immunotherapy is to provoke the immune system of the patient so that it can recognise and act against the foreign element in the cancer cells. When I introduced the idea it was laughed at. To cut a long story short, the immunity of cancer patients is normal at the beginning of the tumour, but it becomes of course progressively worse. So having tried surgery, chemotherapy, I was now obliged to look at immunotherapy.
While I was working on this, the HIV problem showed up too and I think it was obvious to everyone that something of HIV was similar to the cancer patients. Patients have the virus, they cannot get rid of it. It multiplies and eventually kills the patients as cancers do! And yet both the cancer and HIV are different from the patient’s own cells in some ways. So the question was to find out what the difference was. So in a sense I was doing what I said about solving the problem: identifying the problem first before setting to work on it. I say this because I know that some researchers have set out to find a vaccine for HIV without knowing what the HIV really is as a problem as opposed to its manifestation.
How important is it to invest more in research on the African continent?
I think it is very important, because there are many good scientific ideas which die in Africa because they don’t have a chance to develop. If we had the financial investment these ideas could then be developed with real benefits for the whole of mankind. Scientific discovery is not a personal affair, it is an affair for the whole world because everybody benefits. The ideas which lead to discoveries are not limited to certain regions, they are distributed throughout the whole world.
Do you think that cures or vaccines against AIDS and cancer could come from researchers in Africa in our lifetimes?
I’m working on research on vaccines for both cancer and HIV, and I’ve got good results. It's only a matter of time. I think that we are on the right track for both cancer and HIV because we understand what the problem is. Some of it is not yet clear, but we’ve got patients who are doing well.
What are the greatest challenges you face in bringing these promising results to fruition?
The main challenge would be the financial resources to refine some of the things we talk about. If I had enough money I could put many scientists to work full-time, to refine some of our findings.
If you had the opportunity, what message would you wish to convey to the world’s leaders?
I would say to them that ideas are the bases for discoveries and they come from any part of the world including Africa. The improvements in the world today are the results of the developments of simple basic ideas.
See what’s happened in Asia, Japan and so on. Fifty or a hundred years ago those countries were underdeveloped countries, and now you cannot contest the scientific qualities of the Japanese. This telephone is made by Samsung, a Korean company. The Japanese are leading in science, but if they had not invested in science they would have remained an underdeveloped country too! The Chinese are now coming up. Most of the computer scientists in the world now come from India (- my own son has gone to work for a company based in India). In Africa, good ideas exist also and, if you invest, African scientists can become as powerful as Japanese and Korean scientists.
Finally, Professor Ngu, what would you say to a young person who was considering studying science?
If you do science you can never be bored. In a sense I’ve lived well. I’m 79 years old and I think it’s because I’ve been doing something scientific that has kept me going so long. I wake up at two in the morning and I get an idea and I can’t go to sleep. Isn’t that wonderful?
1. Burkitt's Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system. Rare in most of the world, it is the most common childhood cancer in West, Central and East Africa, and is one of the most aggressive of all human cancers. Identified in 1956 by a British surgeon, Dennis Burkitt, working in equatorial Africa.
2. Albert Lasker Medical Research Award in Clinical Cancer Chemotherapy.