Tanzanian scientist wins Royal Society Pfizer Award for Sickle Cell Disease research

15 September 2011

An African scientist who is working to save the lives of people with Sickle Cell Disease (SCD) in Tanzania has been awarded the Royal Society Pfizer Award.

Dr Julie Makani, who is conducting research on anaemia in SCD, will receive £60,000 towards a 12-month study which aims to provide a better understanding of the molecular, genetic and environmental mechanisms of this disease. 

Dr Makani, who is based in the Haematology Department at Tanzania’s leading biomedical research university, Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences, has provided evidence that anaemia is a common cause of morbidity and mortality in SCD in Tanzania. She has developed a framework to conduct a clinical trial of Hydroxyurea - a chemotherapy agent with potent effects on the bone marrow – in the treatment of anaemia in SCD. 

Hydroxyurea increases foetal haemoglobin (HbF) levels but it has a direct effect on haematopoiesis - blood cell formation - through poorly understood mechanisms. The award money, provided through a grant from Pfizer Inc., will allow Makani to extend the clinical trial to include a description of the haematopoietic response to Hydroxyurea. It will also allow her to explore genetic and environmental factors (socioeconomic status, education and access to health care) associated with the haematopoietic response to hydroxyurea. 

Dr Makani hopes that the research will lead to improved diagnosis and treatment thereby reducing the burden of anaemia to individuals, the health system and local community. Commenting on her work and the prize, she said: 
“It is an honour for our work to receive this recognition. I hope that this award will help change the perception about science and technology in Africa, as it provides validation that it is possible to conduct genomic research in Africa. The recognition of our work by the Royal Society and Pfizer will serve to show that is possible to develop excellence in science, while integrating this into improving healthcare and building expertise in sickle cell anaemia.” 

Professor Lorna Casselton, Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society, said: 
“We are extremely pleased to recognise such an impressive individual with the Royal Society Pfizer Award this year. Sickle Cell Disease has a severe toll on Africa and high quality research to lessen the burden is much needed. We hope that Dr Makani stands as role-model for other young Africans scientists wishing to make a difference on their continent and worldwide. ” 

Dr Richard Hubbard, Senior Director of External Medical Affairs at Pfizer, added: 
"Dr Makani's accomplishments in Sickle Cell Disease research are truly outstanding. Her commitment and emerging role as a scientific leader in Tanzania exemplifies the type of science capacity building this Award seeks to recognize."

The award grant and a £5,000 personal prize will be presented to Dr Makani at a ceremony on 18 October 2011 at the Royal Society in London. 

About Sickle Cell Disease

Sickle Cell Disease is a recessive genetic blood disorder characterized by red blood cells that assume an abnormal, rigid, sickle shape. When these hard and pointed red cells go through small blood vessels they can clog the flow and break apart leading to pain, damage, a low red blood count, or anaemia, among other things. According to published reports, it is estimated that 300,000 children are born every year with SCD, 70% of which are born in Africa.

Makani’s home country, Tanzania, has one of the highest annual birth rates of SCD in the world, estimated to be between 8,000 to 11,000 births every year. Without treatment between 50% and 90% will die in early childhood, and over 5% of the infant mortality in Tanzania may be attributable to SCD. These statistics are particularly tragic as early identification through newborn screening and enrolment in comprehensive healthcare programmes could prevent up to 70% of deaths.