Ify Aniebo is not your regular young woman. Her interest and almost unprecedented focus on scientific research sets her apart from many others by countless miles. She shares her passion with The Interview…
Why did you choose to study medicine?
The intricately connected structure of the human body is inspiring. Once I
started to understand the links between chemistry and biology in the human body, I haven’t looked back. My passion for science was further ignited further by the fact that thousands of Africans die every year from diseases which can be prevented. From the very early stages of my medical and scientific education, I have fully realised the effects such illnesses can have on patients and their families.
The fact that I was an inquisitive child growing up contributed immensely to my taking the path of medicine. I decided to be a scientist after my A-level studies. I am most fascinated by living organisms on a molecular level and I derive so much pleasure trying to understand how they function, adapt and multiply. I am fascinated about the processes which prevent them from doing what they were created to do by evolution. I became a scientist not only to save lives, but also to investigate reasons why diseases crop up and why the human body is sometimes incapable of resisting infections.
You are a Gates scholar at Oxford, researching, as it were, the DNA of tropical malaria parasites. What motivated you to embrace this area of research?
My interest in malaria studies was specifically ignited after I suffered multiple infections from the bites of anopheles mosquitoes during my childhood and adolescent years. I noticed later that the drugs administered both for treatment of the infection and for prophylactic use always changed. For instance I recall quinineused to be administered to fight malarial infections. Then a couple of years later, chloroquine became the drug of choice.
In West Africa today, none of those drugs I just mentioned are used again to treat malaria because the parasite has become resistant to them. The drugs now being popularly administered are Halfan (halofantrine hydrocholoride), Fansidar and Artemisinin. I find it both disturbing and fascinating that a disease, which has been around for half a billion years, still kills millions of people each year, especially in the aftermath of great medical advances humanity has witnessed in recent decades.
What’s more intriguing is that no vaccine that has complete efficacy has yet been developed to combat malaria. The international community neglected the need to combat malaria in the 90s and interest was only taken up a few years ago. There were no grants or funds to study the disease and millions were dying. Today there are some grants available but not as much as is expected. It is also saddening that there are not a lot of African scientists leading most malaria research programmes, considering the fact that it greatly impacts our continent. It is disheartening that most of the funds donated for this fight are from foreign organisations. I want to be part of the movement to eradicate malaria and effect a change positively because at the moment, malaria kills more people everyday than HIV/AIDS.
Can you tell us about any on-going research you are undertaking in the fight against malaria?
My research is focused on trying to understand the genetic basis for resistance to the drug, Artemisinin, by the malaria parasite. Artemisinin is a significant drug used to treat malaria infection. Unfortunately, there have been reports of drug resistance in South-East Asia and there are fears that this resistance will spread to Africa, as it previously occurred with other drugs that have been used to treat malaria.
If resistance spreads to Africa, the current drugs we use (artemether, and Lumerfantrine, which contain artemisinins) will no longer be effective. This is bad news because at the moment, there are no new malaria drugs in development. So Artemisinins are our last hope or else millions of lives will be lost to this debilitating disease.
My research focuses on trying to understand artemisinin drug resistance and then preventing it from spreading to Africa. As a result, I work with parasite lines from Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana. I have successfully developed an assay that can identify resistance and discriminate the difference in drug sensitivity between these parasites from different African regions.
I have also successfully carried out whole genome sequencing of these African parasites. It is important to note that this has never been done before. The significance of this is that, I will be able to have an understanding of these parasite specifically to the African context and with this data, surveillance can occur which will ultimately lead to the prevention of the spread of drug resistance. The significance of my study is that millions of Nigerian lives will be saved.
How close is your research to a breakthrough?
In my area of research, a breakthrough would be to prevent the spread of drug resistance to Nigeria and other African countries. So far, I have done groundbreaking work and I am confident that with proper support and funding, in a few years a breakthrough will be achieved.
Are any pharmaceutical companies showing any interest in your research findings?
Pharmaceutical companies no longer operate the way they did. Most companies now control the direction of research because they provide a lot of funding. This means they hire their own scientists to carry out research on a disease they are interested in combating. This results in the production of drugs years later, which they then market to the public. Scientists aren’t as independent anymore as the industry drives the direction of research; if a scientist wants independence, his or her funding would have to either come from government or organisations that promote science. In Africa, this becomes almost impossible, as African governments do not regularly invest in scientific research. This means that African talents aren’t nurtured and diseases that finding a cure for diseases that affect Africans is not prioritized.
At some point in your research you had to find another sponsor and supervisor. What happened?
I was carrying out research on African strains of malaria from Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya, with funding from an international organisation. Unfortunately, my funding partners decided they wanted a change in direction and focus on research on Asian malaria strains instead (Plasmodium vivax, not virulent) which is a different strain from the African malaria parasite (Plasmodium falciparum, very virulent). I was expected to go with the flow and carry on with what my prior funding partners wanted seeing that a lot of money had been invested in my research. But I had absolutely no interest in researching Asian malaria parasites as my people die from the African strain, which had always been the focus of my research. So I decided to change my supervisor and apply for funding from organisations which would allow me a measure of independence regarding my research. Scientists are often caught in this sort of web and because funding in science is generally difficult to get, people just adapt to new research directions. I could not do that because there is no sense in investing my time studying a disease, which affects Asians, whilst my fellow Africans suffer from the strain of the same disease that kills over half a million people yearly.
Which previous research milestones are you building on at this time?
In the 80s when chloroquine was the first-line drug to treat malaria, scientists noticed that the drug was not as effective as it used to be. This meant patients who would usually be cured of malaria were coming back to the hospitals with recurring malaria infections. Laboratory analyses of patients’ blood samples there were still malaria parasites in their blood, which the chloroquine was not killing.
To test the hypothesis that chloroquine had become ineffective, scientists developed a method called a standard 48-hour assay. What this entails is, they expose the parasite to chloroquine in the laboratory for 48 hours and, after that, count how many parasites survive after 48 hours. That is a measure of drug sensitivity. This method has been used and is still being used to date to test the effectiveness of all drugs.
Unfortunately, this method does not work for today’s African malarial parasites, even after exposing them to different levels and combinations of anti-malaria drugs. The old method did give us any new information on the level of artemisinin drug resistance and it could not discriminate between parasites from different regions of Africa and the world. The old method was specific for a different drug and now a new one has to be developed for a new drug, which we currently use. This is artemisinin. My innovation does all of the above successfully.
The second part of my work, which is whole genome sequencing of malarial parasites from Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya, has no previous milestone. I am the first person currently known to have sequenced these African parasites. This is the part of my work that is groundbreaking.
Are pharmaceutical companies really interested in research regarding tropical malaria? Where are competing research funds going?
Yes, pharmaceutical companies are interested in research on tropical malaria. This is because millions of people die every year from this disease and if a new drug/ efficacious vaccine is created, lots of profits will be made. Pharmaceutical companies are generally interested in any disease that affects a huge proportion of the population, as this directly translates to big profits for such companies. Pharmaceutical companies are in the business of eliminating or managing illnesses or diseases to make profit, more than they are to save lives.
Are you working with any Nigerian or African universities or researchers on your project?
No, I am not, unfortunately. I probably would have if the Nigerian government invested in science and research.
It’s a boring life in the laboratory, right?
Actually it isn’t. I get so excited about every experiment I carry out. Of course there are days/weeks/months when my experiments do not work but the fact that I do not know what to expect makes it all very exciting.
What keeps you going?
The belief that my path has been carved by God and the immense passion I have for my work.
Are you under pressure to marry, since that is a norm nearly everywhere for young and enterprising women like you?
I have never been the type to get pressured by anything or anyone around me. A lot of young women see marriage as a box to tick at a stage in their lives, which is akin to getting a degree, since our society makes it so. Much emphasis is placed on getting married and little is placed on getting married to the right person, at the right time, and being happy in that union. I believe in doing things at the right time and walking my own path. Marriage is a journey, not a destination
You won the Future Person of The Future Award (in both science and overall categories) in 2010. What does this award mean to you?
Receiving two awards, to me, means I have the full support of a lot of people, which I find motivating and encouraging. Winning those awards has given me the strength to continue in my path. The strength also comes from the fact that so many people have been inspired from this experience. I get a lot of messages on Facebook from people telling me how inspired they feel and how they want to do something great for the country. I also received a few messages from people saying they want to get back into the field of science. I love to inspire people in every way and that to me is the most significant factor in my career.
Are you planning to return home after your studies in the United Kingdom?
Yes! I chose to study a disease that kills my people because I intend using my knowledge to improve Nigerian lives. I come from a line of people in my family that has served the nation and so my sense of patriotism could be considered genetic. I am definitely returning to Nigeria after my studies in the UK.
What’s next in your research on malaria?
When I move back (to Nigeria) next year, I would like to set up a world-class research laboratory that focuses on other infectious diseases (including malaria) that plague Nigerians and Africans.