The University of Buea- UB in its quest for excellence has stretched out its academic, research and community outreach tentacles to the entire republic, beating the seven other state universities. UB’s participation in a programme to build capacity for a structured institutional approach for training young academics (Early Career Researchers) in research and related skills is beginning to pay-off. After sundry years of research, UB’s biotechnology Unit, Department of biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Faculty of Science now delights in the fallouts.
The Faculty of Science in the University of Buea has embraced research for some time now and can now tell the success story through its most recent discovery; doing a DNA test on site; a thing only the University of Buea in Cameroon now does. Thanks to the support of research grants from UB itself, as well as from the World Health Organisation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, UB’s Biotechnological Unit now writes its success story in the face of academic pangs and tortures.
Professor Fidelis Cho-Ngwa – Head of UB’s Biotechnology Unit and the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology- tells the story .
Ajong: Prof. your laboratory has certainly gone through thick and thin to discover the possibility of conducting a DNA test here on campus, a thing only the University of Buea among state Universities can do. Tell us how you broke the odds
Prof. Cho-Ngwa: You see, several things converged to make this possible. The first thing is that, we are a department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Therefore, we deal with the biological molecules, including, the DNA. We are the epicentre on works around the DNA. Because we are in that field, and the fact that we also run a professional MSc program called, M.Sc. in Molecular Diagnostic Science, which was recently changed by the last senate of the University to become MSc Molecular Epidemiology and Diagnostic Science, we had no choice, but to develop the test. This is part of the professionalization of Higher Education the Head of State, President Paul Biya has been talking about. We were encouraged to run this professional programme also because of the techniques we learned from laboratories abroad (in Europe, USA and other African countries). The difficulty was first, getting the knowledge and hands-on skills, and secondly getting the equipment. But thanks to a number of research grants that we obtained notably, the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the government of Belgium, we were able to gather some equipment that permitted the development and installation of this test at UB. However, for us to be able to do analyses on trace or latent (invisible) evidence, such as on a hair or cigarette butt, of a spot that has been touched with fingers at a crime scene, we need more sensitive machines which we currently don’t have, but are not very expensive.
Ajong: What is DNA?
Prof. Cho-Ngwa: DNA is acronym for deoxyribonucleic acid – the hereditary material . It is what people commonly call gene. But in more technical terms, DNA is the carrier of the gene. It is the DNA that makes you look the way you do. So DNA is information for the organism to be what it is. We should also note that no two individuals on earth have the same DNA content, except identical twins. And so if you were to do a DNA test, you won’t be able to differentiate between identical twins, because they have come from the same fertilised egg. In fact, they only differ slightly at times because of environmental factors. Individuals differ in their DNA content by about or less than 0.1%, while the difference between man and the chimpanzee (the closest animal relative of the human being), is only about 1%. That means we are about 99% genetically related to the chimps.
Ajong: Okay, why is it important to do one’s DNA test?
Prof. Cho-Ngwa: The DNA test is used to solve so many problems. Generally, we use it only when there is a problem, given that it is also a test that could stir trouble. Paternity testing is first (two men for instance fighting over a child or a father refusing that a child is not his), where the DNA test will pick out the father very neatly. Maternity testing is second (two women struggling know who owns the child or the case of a stolen baby). DNA will point out the right mother. DNA is also necessary in forensics, (criminology) where somebody commits a crime and becomes a suspect that could be proven innocent or guilty. You just need to go to the crime scene, get some of the things he/she could possibly have touched, or blood spill, fallen hair, etc and check to see if the suspect was at the crime scene. It is also used for person identification. We have successfully used a form of the DNA test in our laboratory to tell the sex of foetuses as from 6 weeks of gestation using few drops of blood from the pregnant woman (ethical considerations are crucial here). This is possible because the foetus’s DNA is present in the mother’s blood. You could use the test to establish ancestral relationships. Also in establishing that someone has effectively raped a woman.
Ajong: Now Prof. let’s talk about the procedures. Science warrants the submission of a DNA sample for a genealogical DNA test. One of the methods is by submitting chewing gum. How is this done?
Prof. Cho-Ngwa: Of course, saliva has a lot of DNA. Also cells falling from the walls of the mouth cavity provide DNA to the gum. By the time you finish chewing the gum, you should have put into it, so much DNA that forensic scientist may not need to do the analyses. The technology that is used is so sensitive that it takes a very small amount of DNA and amplifies it literally millions of times.
Ajong: Prof. Cho-Ngwa, there are three types of genealogical DNA test; Autosomal, mitochondrial DNA and Y- Chromosome DNA. What is the difference and which of them does your laboratory test?
Prof. Cho-Ngwa: Our laboratory can test all, depending only on the probes (PCR primers) we use. The first one, Autosomal has to do with the normal cellular genomic DNA of your body. Mitochondrial DNA is used to establish maternal lineage. It has to do with matrilineal testing because we get the Mitochondrial DNA only from our mothers. We don’t inherit it from our fathers, only from our mothers. So if you are looking for people who come from some old grandma you go for a Mitochondrial DNA test. For the Y- Chromosome genealogical analyses, you want to look for patriline (father).
Ajong: Until now Prof. Cameroonians had a laissez-faire attitude towards doing their DNA test. To get an American Visa today- a thing sundry Cameroonians flurry to do- demands you establish a biological relationship. Has this in any way motivated numerous tests?
Prof. Cho-Ngwa: We are thinking more of missing babies, catching criminals, solving problems of people fighting over children, men disowning their children and so on. Testing so people could go abroad is just one of the applications, but not one of our priorities. It could however, be a very good thing if people can first of all get themselves tested out of Embassy business before they go there, so that women could make some confessions before they get embarrassed at the Embassy. In fact, there is a research publication that says women cheat at the same rate as men do.
Ajong: According to DNA Testing Advisor.com, many African Americans and others are using an African DNA test to get answers about their ethnic ancestry. Is there a difference with the other DNA test?
Prof. Cho-Ngwa: No-no-no. It’s basically the same technology except you have to move from there and do Molecular Phylogenetic analyses, which we do using online tools. Allele frequencies for different genetic markers established for African populations are also used. When you do a Molecular Phylogenetic analyses, you see which group the person will cluster with and that will be the origin of the person because people who have come from the same lineage share so much of their genetic sequences together. Those are test that can be done even here in Cameroon. We can even use that to follow the evolution of certain ethnic groups within Cameroon, then we might be able to say, the Bakweri people and the Duala people are related or not related, or that the Bakweri people are more related to the Ibo people or not , and so on.
Ajong: The University of Buea, out of Cameroon’s eight State Universities, being able to do a DNA test today after sundry years of research is worth applauding. How are Cameroonians going to benefit from this huge discovery?
Prof. Cho-Ngwa: The first thing is that, the DNA testing is going to be done on the ground. There is no possibility of sample mix-up on their way to western countries. The experiments can be done while the persons are seated in the same lab, most importantly; it’s going to be cheaper. The average test in America is done for 250.000 Francs CFA, but we are not going to ask more than 100.000 francs. DNA testing in the University of Buea, Cameroon will give faster results, surer results and more accurate results given that the sample needs not pass through so many hands. The machine we are using have not been manufactured in Cameroon, but by the same companies that have manufactured the ones used in the west, and so, all you need is proper training which we have given our students here. Certainly the University is training people on how to do this test through the M.Sc. in Molecular Epidemiology and Diagnostic Science. Cameroonians also work in some of the DNA testing labs abroad, so why not here also.
Ajong: Where can one start if he/ she want to come for a DNA test at your Laboratory here in Buea?
Prof. Cho-Ngwa: We have to meet the Deputy Vice Chancellor in Charge of Research, Cooperation and Relations with the Business World to get the modus operandi in place. But for now, we are running it on our research platform. When you visit our lab for a DNA test for now, we would give you genetic counselling, then if you have reached the age of majority (21), you would be asked to sign certain ethical forms after verification of your national ID; or a parent or guardian could sign on your behalf if you are below that age. For the paternity test, the parent to sign can only be the mother; for the maternity test, both parents have to sign or a court order should exist. You need to come to the ANDI Center of Excellence, Biotechnology Unit, Faculty of Science. This building is the closest to the University Catholic church building, at the Catholic Church entrance into the University of Buea during working hours at the lab (8:00 am to 4 pm), Monday to Friday. You could also call the number 677623220.
Ajong: So who is Prof. Cho-Ngwa?
Prof. Cho-Ngwa: Hahahahahaha. Okay, Prof. Cho-Ngwa is a Biochemist, Molecular Biologist, Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. I am also Head of the Department, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and also Head of the Pan African Centre of Excellence. Prof. Cho-Ngwa is also a writer. He is author of the widely used Advanced Level Qualitative and Quantitative Analyses; Principles, Techniques and Practice for A/L Chemistry Students. Fourth Edition. I am an “akamantso” title holder in two villages (Chomba (a Mankon clan) and Mbei -Santa) in the NW Region.
Ajong: Okay, any last words to the readers of this interview?
Prof. Cho-Ngwa: Sure, I would like to inform all and sundry to know it, UB now runs the DNA test. They should come and see for themselves. To the government of Cameroon, I will say, they should invest much more in research because it pays. Some of them might not be quick with results, but when the results certainly come, it is glory to the entire nation. We urge for government’s support in all domains; morally and financially so that together, we will write Cameroon’s name in International Research Record Books.
By Ajongakou Santos in Buea for BaretaNews
We want to salute the strides made by Prof Ngwa. This is what we want to see. We feel proud and hope his team continues in this way. We pray for more grace.