|20 November, 2019||John Osei Sekyere|
The Africa India Mobility Fund (AIMF) is a two-year programme designed to provide researchers from Africa and India with opportunities for short visits to explore opportunities to strengthen research and innovation capacity and knowledge exchange, as well as build scientific collaborations.
John Osei Sekyere, PhD, University of Pretoria, shares his experience of working with world renowned scientists and the skills he has gained thanks to this opportunity provided by AIMF.
I applied for the AIMF grant to get an opportunity to visit two major laboratories that are leaders in cutting-edge tuberculosis research. One of these laboratories is headed by a world-renowned CRISPR (a DNA editing technique) scientist who is using this technology to manipulate the genomes of Mycobacterium tuberculosis.
The other laboratory is headed by a Pharmacist who specialises in designing novel techniques to engineer inhalational tuberculosis drugs, which will be more potent and easier to take than current oral regimens.
The experience I envisaged to obtain from these world-renowned scientists was huge, and I therefore spared no time in applying for this AIMF grant to enable me to visit them and learn from their laboratories as well as build collaborations with them.
Working with world-renowned scientists
I went to India to assist Professor Nisheeth Agarwal of the THSTI (Translational Health Science and Technology Institute), at Faridabad, for two weeks, and then worked along Professor Amit Misra of the Central Drug Research Institute (CDRI) at Lucknow for another two weeks.
My research at THSTI was on how to edit or silence important virulence and resistance genes in Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the causal agent of tuberculosis, an infectious disease that killed around 1.6 million people in 2017 and infected 10 million people in the same year. Editing the DNA is important as it allows us to identify weaknesses and strengths in the pathogen’s genome that can be exploited for vaccine and drug development.
At CDRI, I worked on developing in-vivo inhalational therapies using CRISPR and bacteriophages. Due to the presence of the M. tuberculosis pathogen in the lungs, it was necessary to use inhalation therapy for a more local and direct effect on the pathogen instead of using oral therapies.
Because the pathogen resides within the macrophages, a part of the cell-mediated immune system, it was necessary to have a system, such as nano or micro-particles, that can encapsulate either the drug, the CRISPR plasmid or bacteriophages, so that they can easily enter the macrophages without being destroyed.
We therefore tried to encapsulate the CRISPR in such delivery systems so that once inside the macrophages, the CRISPR plasmid or bacteriophage (mycobacteriophage in this instance) can modify the genome of the pathogen causing it to die, stop replicating or make it non-virulent. This approach has already worked in HIV, but it is yet to be replicated in tuberculosis.
Thanks to this opportunity, I got to use these cutting-edge techniques and research, and enabled me to establish important collaborations that can yield important findings geared towards finding an inhaled and potent therapy for tuberculosis, the deadliest pathogen of mankind.
Now that these collaborations have been established between my department, and myself, and these two important research centres in India, I am currently applying for grants for funding to undertake these important proposed research studies. I am still in contact with them and we are hoping to get the necessary funding to advance this novel idea. It is our aim that the grant funds will provide for student scholarships so that the skills can be passed on to students.
An opportunity of a lifetime
If it hadn’t been for this grant, I would never have been able to visit these important institutions. I was also able to buy important reagents and a MinIon whole-genome sequencing device through this grant. Indeed, this has helped me with my microbiome research work. I also learned a lot of new skills and built important collaborations.
I am confident this will go a long way to improve on my research output, skill transfer to other postgraduate students and enhance my grant applications, as such collaborations normally do when applying for international grants.
The benefit of collaboration
India and Africa are similar in many instances, for example, both have very similar climates and socio-economic environments, as well as teeming youthful populations. These cultural and geographical similarities make both India and Africa share similar health problems. A case in point is the tuberculosis and infectious diseases epidemics, which are highly prevalent in both India and Africa.
Due to the advanced scientific skills available in India and their numerous pharmaceutical industries, they stand a higher chance of helping Africa to also solve the infectious diseases epidemics we face. Should India find solutions to these plagues, Africa stands to profit most. Should they test their medicines on their populations, it his highly likely the results can be more easily translated to Africa than if such clinical trials were done among a Caucasian population.
So, this is why it is in our best and mutual interests to synergise our efforts towards unravelling better solutions that work for us than waiting for such solutions from the Western world, who have far different challenges than both Africa and India.
I was in India for a month and this research has already improved my scientific outlook and added to my laboratory skills. I can now undertake genome editing and silencing as well as do in-vivo and host-pathogen interactions studies. After seeing the quality of PhDs produced in India, I am inclined to up the ante in PhD research in my department by ensuring that the quality of our PhD research is both translational and technologically pertinent.
Expand your scientific portfolio
I learnt a lot about the need to re-orient our PhD research so that the outcome will have a tangible effect on policy, technology and industry. It must result in findings that can be commercialised or can be life-changing in terms of health.
The new skills in CRISPR, nanotechnology and micro-particles encapsulation of drugs or gene therapy agents for infectious diseases therapeutics have so modified my outlook on science and life such that I plan to take it up as a research work going forward.
I introduced them to genomics and bioinformatics analyses of genomic data. These were areas they were not strong on, but which I willingly shared with them to help their work.
Apply for the AIMF grant if you want to get exposure to good cutting-edge science in India. It is a great opportunity to expand your scientific skills portfolio under generous funds.
Identify good laboratories that align with your research and develop a good proposal for the work you want to carry out. A strong and compelling proposal will put you in good stead for winning the grant.
We hope this inspires you to apply for your own researcher mobility grant to learn new techniques, gain new skills and foster new collaborations. Click on the link to find out more and apply.
Watch this space to hear from fellow grantees and what they achieved with AIMF.