MSI: Continuing the Search for a Malaria Vaccine

Alan Anderson

For 15 years, Thomas Egwang, founder and director of Med Biotech Laboratories in Kampala, has been trying to help people afflicted with malaria, primarily children, who are the most vulnerable and who account for some 80 percent of malaria deaths. His work is centered on and around the town of Apac, located about 200 miles north of Kampala.

Dr. Egwang’s MSI award has allowed several of his staff to advance their careers, including technicians with many years’ experience and a medical doctor who had wanted to do research as well.

Among Dr. Egwang’s four MSI students, three were available to speak about their work and careers:

-Connie Agwang, who had a BS degree in Biomedical Laboratory Science and was working at Med Biotech when the MSI was announced, quickly applied in the hope that it would allow her to advance professionally. She was accepted and is now an MSc student in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology. During her research time, she has worked on various aspects of malaria vaccine development, including a number of antigens, including EBA-175, a vaccine candidate. She has also looked at certain gene polymorphisms and how they relate to the immunological state of children who are susceptible to malaria. “I am still generating data,” she said. “I haven’t gotten to results yet. But I think there is hope for a malaria vaccine.” She is also involved in a project outside of the MSI, working with a Japanese university on a clinical trial of a vaccine.

-Sylvia Kiconco, an MSc student of Laboratory Science and Management, was taking a short course in biomedical research at Mulago Hospital, the largest in Kampala, when she saw a notice about the MSI on the Med Biotech website. She had applied for funding for an MSc course, but was unable to find any. “I have worked in many labs,” she said, “and saw that they were not managed well. I wanted the chance to do better. That goes to the core basis of research.” She is being mentored by an MSI PhD student, Bernard Kanoi, and plans to finish her MSc in October, when the MSI program ends, with a specialty concentration in malaria.

-Betty Balikagala, M.D., is working on her MSc in Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics. She already has an M.D. degree from Mbarara University of Science and Technology, and after an internship at Mulago, her supervisor asked her to help with the data collection on a project studying the effects of the malaria drug mannitol on children, first with clinical trials and then with post-mortem brain studies. “That’s how my research career started,” she said. ”I was hooked. After collecting data for some time, I wanted to know how a research paper is done, so I am learning how to analyze data and do good manuscripts. At Med Biotech my supervisor does immunology, so I want to study that to get a better understanding of what I’m doing. I’ve done a lot of reading to help with my proposal, and I get help from Tom. I’ll finish this contract in October, too.”

“The MSI has been a great product,” said Dr. Egwang. “We have managed to set up a functional lab in a very poor part of Uganda. We now have a stand-by generator, and yesterday when the electricity was out, we were able to keep working.” He, like others, noted procurement problems, but said that he was able to use his lab’s existing facilities to bridge some gaps in equipment and consumables.

“If you see what it has been able to achieve in three years it has been tremendous – building up infrastructure, training, social transformation. Some MSI colleagues are in academic-industry partnerships, working with companies. I think we should have more of that.”

He added that he now spends more time in Apac than he used to. “We used to drop in there, get samples, and come back,” he said. “We didn’t have a relationship with the community and weren’t able to build up trust. Some people even thought we were taking their blood to sell it. We also had the problem of transporting delicate samples over 200 miles of road, and when they reached here, they showed signs of stress; for example, the different cell types did not separate as expected, or all the genes would be turned on, which was not normal.

“It’s critical for one of our senior people to be there for vaccine trails,” he said, “and to have the community see what we do. Now we have a community advisory board there, and we consult with them on any prickly issues, such as taking blood. We spend virtually all our working time up there.”
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Several years ago, the World Bank financed a major Millennium Science Initiative (MSI) program to help strengthen science and technology capacity in Uganda. Approximately half of this investment, the Bank's largest S&T commitment to date, supports a competitive grants program for a variety of university research projects. The financing supports stipends and fees for graduate students, faculty salary supplements, research equipment, and infrastructure. Another major portion is dedicated to transferring technical knowledge to the private sector through academic-business linkages and educational activities for farmers, health workers, and small-business people. The MSI program resembles RISE in providing full support for MSc and PhD students, which is extremely difficult to secure in Africa. The August 2010 blog post series illustrates some of the activities supported by the MSI.