Kenyan scientist wins award for childhood malaria research

24 November 2010

An African scientist whose research may save the lives of hundreds of thousands of children has been awarded the Royal Society Pfizer Award.  Dr Collins Ouma receives £60,000 for his research into severe malarial anaemia (SMA), one of the leading causes of paediatric mortality in sub-Saharan Africa.

It has been estimated that severe malarial anaemia causes between 190 000 and 974 000 deaths each year among children under five years old. Dr Ouma’s research focuses on the genetic and immunological basis of SMA, an area where there is very little current knowledge. A successful malaria vaccination would need to protect against the development of severe life-threatening SMA, meaning that any progress Dr Ouma can make will be vital.

Dr Ouma has been investigating the functional impact of variation within key immune mediator genes, in regulating the development and clinical outcomes of SMA in children less than three years of age in Plasmodium falciparum (one of the species of parasite that cause malaria in humans) transmission area of western Kenya. The research involves identifying critical genes that can play a significant role in the immunopathogenesis of severe malaria and, hence, condition the clinical outcomes of childhood malaria.

The investigations focus on important genes that link the innate and adaptive immune systems. The results from these studies in phenotypically well-defined cohorts of children will maximise the ability to successfully identify genotypes that condition susceptibility to SMA. This information will be important as the primary goal of Dr. Ouma’s genetic based investigations is to identify susceptible groups for targeted therapeutic interventions.

Part of the funding that Dr Ouma receives through the prize will also be used to establish a teaching and research laboratory at Maseno University in Kenya.

Commenting on his work and the prize, Dr Ouma said:

“I feel privileged at being selected the 2010 winner of the Royal Society Pfizer Award.  I appreciate the recognition by the Royal Society Pfizer committee, of my efforts, those of my mentors and of my co-investigators in our studies investigating the genetic basis of severe malarial anemia in children from western Kenya.

This award will aid in identifying additional immune mediators that are associated with susceptibility to severe malaria in children from this P. falciparum holoendemic transmission region.   Findings will help us focus on particular molecules for therapeutic interventions and identify pediatric populations at an increased risk of severe malaria for enhanced medical care.

 In addition, I am confident that this award will inspire many other African scientists to address issues which challenge our health and further promote capacity-building in Africa.”

Professor Lorna Casselton, Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society, said:

“The Royal Society is very pleased to be able to make this award with Pfizer. The work that African scientists do is hugely important in helping to relieve suffering on the continent. Dr Ouma’s work on severe malarial anaemia could lead to the kind of breakthrough that is desperately needed. It is also very exciting that the prize will enable him to pass his expertise on and encourage other young African scientists.”

Speaking on behalf of Pfizer, Dr Jack Watters, Vice President of External Medical Affairs, noted:

“Dr Ouma exemplifies the best of the next generation of African scientists, whose work is consistent with Pfizer’s goal of advancing scientific investigation that is dedicated to improving the lives of people in their communities.”

The award grant and a £5,000 personal prize will be presented to Dr Ouma at a ceremony at the Royal Society in London tonight.

Please visit the Royal Society Pfizer Award page for further information about the award and previous winners.