From the field
World Malaria Day 2010
Ghanaian scientist mixes malaria vaccine research with grassroots practicality
By David Poland Senior Communications Officer, MVI
"In the war against malaria, we need all the weapons we can muster," says Professor Tsiri Agbenyega. "We know how other vaccines have profoundly reduced the incidence of diseases such as polio and measles. Having a malaria vaccine in our arsenal would greatly improve our chances of winning this battle as well."
Tsiri (pronounced Cheery) serves as a Principal Investigator for the Kumasi-Agogo trial site (Ghana) and was recently elected by his peers to be co-chair of the Clinical Trial Partnership Committee. The committee is a partnership of 11 African research centers, MVI, and GlaxoSmithKline Biologicals, charged with managing the Phase 2 and Phase 3 trials of RTS,S—the world's most clinically advanced malaria vaccine candidate.
"Malaria is a scourge that has relentlessly plagued our part of the world over the years," says Tsiri. "The impact of the disease is devastating, not just on the families upon whom it visits illness and death, but on the economies of sub-Saharan African countries. A great proportion of health and national budgets are spent on treating the sick and also on control measures."
Tsiri has spent his professional life engaged in improving the health of his fellow Ghanaians, and the last 20 years or so going after one of the continent's biggest killers—malaria.
It's been a long path. 'In Ghana, if you are at the top end of your high school class, particularly in science, you are encouraged to go into the field of medicine,' Tsiri relates, adding "The maxim is MEDICO or suicide, in other words, Medical School or suicide. Given the choice, I decided 'why not medical school'." he slyly adds.
After medical school and a five-year stint at Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital (KATH), Kumasi, Tsiri earned a PhD in physiology at Manchester University. Upon his return to Ghana, it wasn't long before he found himself fully occupied
"I found myself teaching physiology to university students, attending to patients on the pediatric wards at KATH, and simultaneously conducting research on malaria," Tsiri recalls. "I realized that there were so many things about malaria we did not understand because we had not been able to work out the patho-physiology of the disease processes brought on by malaria. Research seemed to be able to answer some of these intractable questions, which in turn could lead to better outcomes for the kids on the ward."
The dovetailing of high science with day-to-day practicality is a hallmark of the professor's mindset.
"I came to realize that big health problems could be solved through research," Tsiri explains, "But while research is a useful tool in developing theory for the big picture, it is also a tremendous asset in the practice of medicine at the individual level."
Tsiri continued to climb the academic ladder, eventually ascending to the position of Dean of the School of Medical Sciences at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. That ascent was accompanied by an impressive list of trials, studies, and research initiatives on malaria by Tsiri and the school's faculty.
Today, in his role as Principal Investigator for the RTS,S trial at the Kumasi-Agogo site, Tsiri's penchant for blending the heights of research with grassroots practicality comes to the fore. Through investments by MVI and the Ghana-based Malaria Clinical Trials Alliance, Tsiri and his colleagues were able to develop the Agogo trial site where RTS,S vaccinations are administered. Prior to the site development, medical students and interns at Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital exhibited limited interest in medical research.
"The RTS,S project has opened up training opportunities for our young scientists," says Tsiri. "With the development of the Agogo site, we see that many of our 'top gun' medical interns and residents want to do their pediatric rounds at Agogo, because now they are assured of good clinical instruction and good training in research.
"At least as important," Tsiri continues, "We have also been able to improve the level of care at the facilities where the studies are taking place. Providing state-of-the-art diagnostic tools has contributed to early diagnosis and appropriate treatment. We are doing a better job for our patients. Everyone benefits. That's what our work and these trials are all about."
Photo: Professor Tsiri Agbenyega