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How a hunter turned into a renown inventor- The inspiring story of Dr. Clet Niyikiza

Sunday Times’Julius Bizimungu talked to Niyikizaabout his journey from rural Rwanda to spending nearly 35 years in the US, and his plan to give back to his country.
Below are the excerpts

Let’s start with your journey from Rwanda to the United States of America?
I was born in what is now Kamonyi District in 1958 and this was a time that was characterised by a lot of tension, social turbulences, and a beginning of what resulted into the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
This history affected me, and in fact, my name Niyikiza speaks a bit about it. It was given to me by my father the same day he escaped an assassination. Niyikiza, loosely translated as “only God saves”, was a beginning of an interesting journey.
It was clear from my mum’s side that she was from the Tutsi tribe and my father had tried to save them during the 1959 social war.
To cut the story short, I spent most of my early childhood with my grandfather who was a farmer, cattle herder and a hunter. One of the things that he used to teach me was hunting. We would hunt rabbits and gazelles (antelopes) and this was the starting point of my interest in science.

How did you realise that was the beginning of your interest in science?
Look, my grandfather taught me all the tactics of successfully hunting the gazelle and I’d observe all the things and later apply them.
You can imagine the gazelle running, the wind blowing, the grass wet and you are trying to fire an arrow. That is a combination of all factors; the speed of animal running, the speed and direction of the wind will determine eventually how you will fire the arrow, but most importantly, if the grass is wet, you have to decide how to keep your stability.

These are exactly the same principles of how you design jet fighters, aircraft flying, and how you design warheads (explosive material that is delivered by a missile, rocket, or torpedo) which I was somehow involved in during my PhD. work.
But also it is the same principles of how you design a medicine when you know that the medicine is going in a human system and interact with many biological processes.

How did your interest in science grow?
As a young boy I used to question so many things, even during my school time. When I was joining my elementary school, I passed all examination tests because I understood all the concepts of gazelles and rabbits which other kids did not. [Niyikiza studies the failure of drugs]
The idea of questioning how and why things work characterised me even when I was at high school at Byimana and the science college in Nyanza where I pursued sciences.

I had a chance to join the International Institute of Statistics and Economics, a European Community school that was based in Mburabuturo-Gikondo. Usually you’d have to have a bachelor’s degree to take a test, I had no choice but to sit for it even though I was a high school graduate. Fortunately I got accepted.
The fundamental part of growing up questioning things is the power of observation. One of the pillars to be a good scientist or researcher is to not decide what things should be, but to let things tell you what they are.

What was next after this community school?
Well I had an opportunity to get a six-month job at Rwanda’s National Office of Population (ONAPO) as the second employee. But this was right after I had met my wife and tensions were escalating.
A friend whom my father had helped to go to school over 20 years ago, helped me get a scholarship to go to the United States to pursue further education, but it was cancelled by the then Minister of Science. I was stopped at the airport.

But later, she managed to get me a different passport as a government employee, then they called my departure as a six-month training. And because I had left my wife, she was kind enough to promise me to help her join me.
Sometimes in personal life when I see young people, you help them on their journey, you don’t need to know where they are going. When you help them, they become a gift to the society, and when you don’t, they become a burden to society. This is a lesson I learnt from this hard process.

When did you first land in the US?
I landed in Washington in 1983 to be trained in English for two months. But my friend had earlier sent me to the US in 1981 for a week on a mission to find out whether it could be possible for us to live in such a society.
I started my English training at Georgetown University on a USAID sponsorship, and I was observing during this process to see how we can break through the US system, as well as be able to take my wife with me.
During this time I ran a quick survey and I realised that most of the foreign students were not speaking English, but they were pursuing PhDs in sciences. This is when I decided that I have to pursue a discipline that has nothing to do with too much language.
This is when I decided to study mathematics simply because English was too much for me. Interestingly, this is the same time President Ronald Reagan had given a speech encouraging Americans to join these fields.
The next day I was walking down the street at Wisconsin Avenue in the middle of Georgetown, right next to the residence of President JFK and met my English teacher. I explained to her that I was interested in figuring out how to go and study mathematics, and she advised me to apply.
I applied the following week to different universities, and I got admitted into University of Arizona, University of Chicago and later at Indiana University.

Which university did you choose by then?
I chose University of Chicago because they had accepted me first. I started pursuing a PhD programme, but it was too cold because of winter. I figured out that it wasn’t going to work.
Meanwhile, I had received a scholarship at Indiana but at the same time they had offered me a teaching assistant role. So I shifted there in 1983 to a programme that started effectively in spring.
But the President of this school had asked me how I thought I would get a PhD yet I didn’t speak English and I told him that I had no choice. But there is something that America has that you cannot find anywhere else.
The American system accepts that you have the right to do something that fundamentally first makes you happy, because that is the right ingredient to do it right.

Well, nine years later the president congratulated me for my PhD in mathematics and physics. He said; “well done, I never knew you’d get here”.
To cut the story short, during this period, a lot of things happened. I got a doctoral fellowship at NASA where we worked on a number of interplanetary spaceflights in 1984.
However, I was forced to come back home where I spent four months. They had refused to give papers to my wife and so I did it for the sake of her. But when I went back I was under the protection of NASA because I was their employee. Later I returned to NASA and my wife joined me.

How was the experience at NASA?
To be honest it was an amazing experience because I was tasked to solve a number of mathematical problems, one of which resulted into the successful launch of a spacecraft to Pluto.
We did a lot of work including other projects that I can’t reveal. My PhD was paid for by NASA under the Department of Defense because of the skills I had exhibited.
However, my wife advised me that given our history, I should not spend my skills creating scientific advances that take life, but I’d rather do things that preserve life. This was a simple but powerful message.
I decided that instead of staying in defense and space research, I was going to pharmaceuticals.
I became a visiting professor at Stanford University in the department of Mathematics, and a staff scientist at a company called Syntex Corporation, which was involved in discovery of cancer drugs and pain-specialised medicines.

Was this the start of your journey in the pharmaceutical industry?
Absolutely, because I was put on a team that was tasked to come up with a drug to help women who experience pains during menstrual period, and this drug is known today as ‘Aleve’.
It is a painkiller which I discovered myself along with two other colleagues in California in 1990. It is now a drug that has a big market in the world, valued at about US$14 billion.

At this time, I still had a good network and interest in space research at NASA. This is when we designed the YF-17 jet fighter. I was part of the staff team that designed it.
At the same time it opened other doors for me that I got to be on a joint programme that was tasked to find a sustainable solution for HIV/AIDS. This disease was deadly at that time.
What we did was to design a pathway to understand how the disease works that will be known in history as Protease inhibitors. These are a first class of antiviral drugs that are widely used to treat HIV/AIDS.

In 1992, when I was giving a lecture at the National Institute of Health in Washington in which I was describing this new class of drugs, I was approached by the vice president of clinical research at Eli Lilly company in Indiana and we struck a deal that saw me come back to Indiana with my wife and children to become a senior scientist for cancer research and clinical investigation.
Here, we discovered two drugs; Gemzar which I was involved in and Alimta which was a joint discovery with Princeton University, but under my guidance. Both drugs are used for solid cancer. In fact, recently, we celebrated the anniversary of treating more than 3 million patients around the world with Alimta. Alimta is now a US$28 billion drug.

What other drug discoveries were you involved in?

Well, because this is what part of my life has been about since I decided to join the pharmaceutical industry, I have worked on so many drug discoveries. Apart from those that I highlighted, there are others like Tykerb, Evista and Doxil that treat breast cancer, as well as Onyvide that treats pancreatic cancer. But I have been involved in patenting more than 35 drugs.
Again, my own company [L.E.A.F. Pharmaceuticals], which I launched in 2014, now has 23 drugs under development, most of which are yet to be launched on the market.
When was the first time you came back to Rwanda?
In April 2004, I was featured on the front page of The Wall Street Journal as a scientist of the year in the United States in the area of pharmaceuticals. Few days after the publication, the Rwandan Ambassador to the US called me saying President Paul Kagame wanted to meet me. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to connect with my native land. Two years later, he called me again but I had read about the president and understood his vision for the country, and we met in New Jersey in 2006. All our discussions sparked my interest to give back to my country. I became keen to bring my expertise to Rwanda and help the continent in building the biotechnology industry.

So you established a subsidiary here last year?
Yes, L.E.A.F Rwanda came from an idea that we should tap into an industry that is young yet seemed to be lucrative. The establishment of this would focus on promoting biotechnology research and development and pharmaceutical manufacturing in Africa.
But the bigger aim was to lift and empower people, especially in developing countries, starting with my own homeland. I was driven by the trust and confidence I had in the president.
We have since embarked on a journey to build infrastructure required for biotechnology in Rwanda.

How is this happening?
We entered a partnership with University of Rwanda this year and we are acquiring existing biotechnology laboratory at the college of science and technology to turn it into an international standard laboratory for biotechnology.
We are going to turn it into a Food and Drug Administration (FDA), European Medicines Agency, and Rwanda FDA qualified building so that discoveries made here can be exported.

We also have a partnership where we are going to have another big biotechnology laboratory at the Rwanda Military Hospital.
This is already happening. My team of American scientists has been here to inspect the buildings and design other necessary plans that will see these projects take off quickly.
These shall be the infrastructure for [promoting] human capital because we are also going to be training young scientists from Rwanda.

Is this all?
No, the other thing is that we are going to build a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility for medicines (newly discovered drugs). The cabinet already gave us land in the Kigali Special Economic Zone.

The other fundamental idea about starting this whole thing is to have advanced medicines here. Because these medicines even those that I discovered like Alimta and Gemzar don’t exist here.
Basically, you have a system where you have made important discoveries but your mothers, your sisters, your brothers, grandparents cannot have access to. This became unacceptable for me.

This is what is driving me, but also the fact that Rwanda and the continent are on the dawn of a new era.


How a hunter turned into a renown inventor- The inspiring story of Dr. Clet Niyikiza How a hunter turned into a renown inventor- The inspiring story of Dr. Clet Niyikiza Reviewed by commentsafrica on June 18, 2018 Rating: 5

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