RIYADH: Two Saudi undergraduate students have been awarded a patent for a breakthrough discovery that could revolutionize the fight against foot-and-mouth disease, the highly contagious viral illness that can devastate livestock herds and ruin farmers.
Fahad Shaya Al-Mutib and Abdullah Fahad Al-Dosari from Prince Sattam Bin Abdulaziz University were given the patent from the Saudi Authority for Intellectual Property after discovering a chemical component isolated from the plant Peganum harmala, also known as wild rue or African rue, which is effective against the virus that causes the widely feared disease.
Al-Mutib told Arab News that Maged Saad Abdel-Kader, professor of pharmacognosy at Prince Sattam Bin Abdulaziz University, had urged the two students to identify a research proposal whose content would include plants with a common application in Saudi Arabia.
He said that the idea for the study came to him since Peganum harmala is widely used by livestock owners to treat foot-and-mouth, known colloquially as Abu-Hjae’er disease, which can cause significant economic losses to livestock owners and breeders.
Immunization offers the only protection against the disease. If herds become infected, they are treated with antibiotics and antipyretics, which do not destroy the virus but merely target the symptoms.
Livestock owners have treated “cattle sickness” by soaking a large amount of Peganum harmala in water for at least a day, allowing the plant’s chemicals to dissolve, before it is given to cattle to drink.
The two students’ research to uncover the plant’s secret and identify its useful compounds began in 2019 under Abdel-Kader’s guidance.
Prof. Gamal Abdulhakim Soliman oversaw the partial analysis of the study in collaboration with Prof. Hesham Youssef Elzorba, vice dean of Cairo University’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine.
The research was carried out in stages, beginning with collecting the plant, then extracting and fragmenting it for different extracts, and finally sending it to the virology laboratory at the Armed Forces Hospital for Veterinary Medicine in Cairo.
Abdel-Kader said that the two students faced significant challenges, including finding a laboratory that was able to conduct experiments on the target virus.
The other challenge was time, since transferring samples to Egypt and waiting for results was a lengthy process. However, all went smoothly.
“I normally do not reject any student’s suggestion, but I always urge them to discuss their ideas with me,” he said. “The two most common reasons for rejecting a study topic are that the requisite experiments cannot be completed or that the same research has previously been conducted.”
Ahmed Suleiman Al-Aliwi, dean of the College of Pharmacy at Prince Sattam Bin Abdulaziz University, said: “The university seeks to promote the research process by providing financial and research support through the development of research programs. It also encourages researchers to publish in international scientific journals and enables researchers to focus on applied research that the world requires.”
He said that the college’s interest in researchers manifests itself in a variety of ways, including “hosting periodic workshops and forming research groups of mutual interest to spark ideas and strengthen research.”
According to Al-Dosari, the biggest challenge facing the two researchers was the employment of several separation methods and the purifying process, “but the team was able to separate seven compounds.”
The structural makeup of the separated compounds was examined using spectroscopic and chemical methods, and what stood out was the presence of two compounds with a complicated structure.
“We used to work in the drug laboratory after school hours and sometimes until after midnight, including on the annual holiday, and in Ramadan for five to six hours a day during the fasting period,” Al-Dosari said.
The two students continued to do research until December 2020, more than five months after graduating.
The pure compounds were tested again on the foot-and-mouth virus. “The most effective was a novel chemical that had never been discovered before, neither from a natural nor synthetic source,” Al-Dosari said.
Working with Abdel-Kader “was a dream come true,” the two students agreed, as the Egyptian academic offered a wealth of experience in scientific research and inventions in the field of drugs.
Abdel-Kader said that he was eager for the students to master all stages of research conducted in the college’s laboratories — from extracting and purifying compounds to identifying their composition.
Al-Dosari said: “The opinion of friends and relatives, as well as their good comments, made us believe that what we had done was amazing and worth the effort and tiredness, and it undoubtedly gave us a moral boost for future creativity in the field of study.”
Al-Mutib added: “Thank God after two years of effort, we are reaping the rewards. We were graduate students who became researchers and inventors.”
Al-Dosari, who is currently working as a marketing representative for Hikma Pharmaceuticals, is a final-year master’s student in pharmacognosy at King Saud University and hopes to get a doctorate in pharmacognosy and join the department’s faculty.
Al-Mutib is a quality controller at Hikma — Jazeera Pharmaceutical Industries, and intends to pursue his graduate education in quality control and business management.
Abdel-Kader hopes to communicate with pharmaceutical companies to deliver the compound or extract as a medicine that can be marketed in the Kingdom and abroad.
Al-Aliwi said that the university’s goal is “to actively engage with stakeholders, including the celebration of joint cooperation agreements with relevant universities and entities to develop the research process and benefit from the human resource represented by distinguished researchers and faculty members to provide consultations and support from both sides to align with the Saudi vision, enhance investment and diversify economy.”