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Tracking Ebola cases and mapping antimalarial drug resistance
News > Postgraduate Study      |      Posted: September 24, 2014 17:56:59pm GMT
Professor Christian Happi, Centre Director for Africa Centre of Excellence for Genomic of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID) and also the Dean of the College of Postgraduate Studies, Redeemer's University

Cameroonian scientist Christian Happi, an expert in molecular biology and genomics, is providing key support to the current Ebola outbreak and helping build Africa’s intellectual infrastructure.         

His childhood heroes were Drs Watson and Crick, and by the time he turned 9, Christian Happi says he had found his calling. “I still remember learning about their amazing discovery of the DNA molecule,” he recalls. “Even as a kid growing up in Cameroon, that was the sort of thing that inspired me. I decided if Watson and Crick were biochemists, I would become one, too.”

And indeed, Happi did just that, studying biochemistry as an undergraduate in Cameroon before going on to earn a doctorate degree in molecular parasitology from the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. Upon embarking on the latter, he says, he had ambitions of putting his knowledge to work on a vaccine for malaria. But a chance encounter with the then director of the Institute for Advanced Medical Research and Training at Ibadan, Professor Ayoade Oduola, caused Happi to change course.

Antimalaria drug research

“He said, you know a malaria vaccine is a long shot. What Africa really needs right now are new drugs to treat the millions of people who become infected every year. So if you want to be relevant, he said, I would urge you to consider antimalarial drug research.” From then on, Oduola, who would go on to serve as TDR’s Coordinator for stewardship and capacity building until his retirement in 2012, took Happi under his wing, mentoring the young scientist as he pursued his PhD.

“Happi has become a real leader in Africa. His work both in malaria, and more recently in using genomic and genetic methods to look at other infections, has been groundbreaking.”

Professor Dyann Wirth, Harvard School of Public Health

“We were all impressed,” says Professor Oduola, “on how effectively Happi integrated and benefited from the collaborations between TDR, the Division of Experimental Therapeutics at the U.S. Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and the University of Ibadan. He is unique in his dedication and motivation.”

Two decades later, Happi is an expert in his own right – an authority on anti-malarial drug development and resistance with more than a hundred papers to his name and a long list of honors, including the 2011 Merle A. Sande Leadership Award given out by the Accordia Global Health Foundation; the 2010 Borroughs Wellcome and Bill & Melinda Gates Award; and a fellowship with the ExxonMobil Malaria Leadership Program at the Harvard School of Public Health, where he trained as a postdoctoral fellow under renowned infectious disease expert Professor Dyann Wirth.

Just recently, Happi was a co-author on a major paper in Science on genome sequencing of the Ebola virus and his lab diagnosed the first case of Ebola in Nigeria. He is part of an international team of researchers who have noted rapid mutations that could affect current diagnostics, vaccines and therapies, and say it is imperative to monitor the viral changes and adaption. More on this in the related article to the right.

Genome sequencing of the Ebola virus

It was early support from TDR – namely a re-entry grant to investigate the molecular determinants of drug response and resistance in P. falciparum from Africa and South America – that Happi credits with kickstarting his successful career. “That was the impetus I needed to take the next step,” he says. “TDR put me on the path to where I am today.”

Raising the profile of a Nigerian university

Today, Happi is in Nigeria – and on top of the world. As professor of molecular biology and genomics, in the Department of Biological Sciences, and Dean of the College of Postgraduate Studies at Redeemer’s University in Ogun State, he’s done much to raise the young university’s international profile. Last year, for example, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded Redeemer’s a US $1.8 million grant, part of the Human Hereditary & Health in Africa Project, to use microbial metagenomic techniques to characterize fevers of unknown origin, an effort Happi spearheaded.

“The most important thing I’ve done in my career is to train and inspire young African scientists, to make them realize that it is possible to achieve great things in Africa. And now I see many of them doing that.”

Christian Happi

That success brought more of the same months later when Redeemer’s won a US $8 million grant from the World Bank to establish the African Center of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID), beating out 18 other universities in West and Central Africa. In explaining its decision, the World Bank selection panel singled out Happi as one reason for Redeemer’s winning bid.

“He’s become a real leader in Africa,” says Professor Wirth, of the Harvard School of Public Health, where Happi is now a Visiting Scientist. “His work both in malaria, and more recently in using genomic and genetic methods to look at other infections, has been groundbreaking.” With his understanding of the field and the sophisticated analysis he’s able to perform, adds Wirth, Happi is rare among scientists in disease endemic countries, and as such “he’s making discoveries and contributions that will stand the test of time.”

Those contributions include important findings related to the genetic diversity of Plasmodium falciparum, information that has been used to generate a molecular map of antimalarial drug resistance in Nigeria. As director, Happi has also done pioneering research on Lassa fever, an acute viral illness endemic to Nigeria and other parts of West Africa. Working with Harvard’s Dr. Pardis Sabeti, he developed the means for performing the first confirmatory diagnosis of the deadly disease in 2008. “We were able to bring down the mortality rate in Nigeria from 90% to 32%,” he says.

Yet for all of his research success, Happi’s proudest achievements aren’t the published papers or the plaques on his wall. “I think the most important thing that I’ve done in my career is to train and inspire young African scientists,” he says. “To make them realize that it is possible to achieve great things in Africa. And now I see many of them doing that.”


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