Cell Biology Hits the Big Time in West Africa

Joy Power demonstrating a laboratory technique to course participants

Joy Power demonstrating a laboratory technique to course participants

Cell biology is a powerful way of approaching biomedical problems, particularly those caused by infectious diseases. The former Department of Biochemistry at the University of Ghana in Legon (a suburb of the capital city, Accra) has undertaken a major reorganization by adding courses, broadening its research interests, and changing its name to the Department of Biochemistry, Cell, and Molecular Biology. Under the leadership of Gordon Awandare, the faculty of this department has also applied for a grant from the World Bank to establish a “Center of Excellence” in the cell biology of important infectious diseases. This effort has brought in a grant of $8 million over four years to establish the West African Center for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens (WACCBIP) with a mandate to develop a graduate program in that subject.
But Awandare and colleagues have reached even farther, applying to the Wellcome Trust for a similar sum to enhance the development of this program for teaching and research and to include human genetics as a basis for disease. The result is an influx of about $16 million, budgeted over five years to train young African scientists through master’s, doctoral, and postdoctoral programs.

Some members of ASCB are quite familiar with this department because it was one of the first to host the short courses in the cell biology of diseases, sponsored by the International Affairs Committee of the ASCB and funded by a four-year grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The first such course was hosted by Jonathan Adjimani and Sammy Sackey of the University of Ghana and organized by Dick McIntosh, PI on the Carnegie grant. The faculty for this course came from Oxford (UK), Paris, and several universities in the United States. This two-week effort provided 25 students from several West African countries with lectures on basic cell biology and laboratory exercises on a variety of techniques, including fluorescence microscopy, FACS, and protein and DNA electrophoresis, plus instruction in using the Internet to mine information from pathogen-oriented databases. There were also journal clubs for training in the close reading of complex papers from the literature and sessions to help students organize and present a short talk on their own research interests. The evenings were devoted to familiarizing students with educational resources on the Web, such as iBioSeminars, and to discussing important professional issues, such as the ethics of research and teaching and effective ways to apply for grants. This ~12 hours/day, 6 days/week schedule provided a “scientific boot camp” experience that most students found very stimulating and rewarding, if hard work. Student feedback was very encouraging, but one always wonders with such an effort what its long-term effects will actually be.

With support from the Carnegie grant and then one year of support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, plus supplementary funds from the Keith R. Porter Endowment for Cell Biology, members of the ASCB presented a total of eight such courses in East and West Africa, hosted by five different institutions where the faculty were interested in working with outside teachers to provides this intense educational experience for their students. The courses returned to Legon a total of three times because of the warm and energetic responses provided by that Biochemistry Department. Both the faculty and the students at Legon showed significant and sustained interest in the approaches to science taught in those courses, as demonstrated by their adopting several of these approaches as new ways to educate their students. These three courses were, in a sense, a catalyst for a reaction that was waiting to happen, given the talent and energy of the faculty at Legon. The remarkable result, whatever its cause, is WACCBIP, an institution that is poised to develop a world-class program in the biology of infectious diseases in one of the most stable and forward-looking countries of West Africa.

To celebrate the success in funding and to jump-start the graduate program, Awandare used some of his recently acquired resources to invite four scientists who had been “regulars” in the previous courses at Legon to return and help his staff put on another two-week course for all the newly enrolled graduate students at WACCBIP. Kirk Deitsch from Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, Martha Cyert from Stanford University, and Joy Power and Dick McIntosh from the University of Colorado convened at Legon for a course that ran from January 18–30, 2016. In addition to Awandare, the Ghanaian faculty of the course included several relatively recent additions to the department, including Patrick Arthur and Lydia Mosi, as well as Dorothy Yeboah-Manu and other researchers from the Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research (NMIMR), situated on the Legon campus.

Participants and faculty members of the course for newly enrolled graduate students at WACCBIP

Participants and faculty members of the course for newly enrolled graduate students at WACCBIP

Deitsch worked with Awandare to organize the course along the lines of the previous ASCB-sponsored events, though this one was for 36 students who were starting either a master’s or a PhD program in the department. The first week was built around the study of Mycobacteria with a focus on M. tuberculosis. The second week addressed the cell biology of apicomplexans in general and Plasmodium falciparum in particular. The visiting faculty gave lectures on basic cell and molecular biology, while the faculty from Legon lectured on numerous practical issues relating to each of these pathogens, including diagnosis, pathogen identification, treatment, and the problems of emerging drug resistance. Teachers from both groups contributed “tool talks” and laboratory exercises that gave students experience with fluorescence imaging and FACS, pathogen typing by PCR, protein gel electrophoresis, and immunoblotting. These methods were used to let the students see how one can follow the process of pathogen invasion of host cells with laboratory methods.

The graduate program at WACCBIP is now underway. Talented students from Ghana and several other West African countries will be exposed not only to courses in cell and molecular biology but to laboratory and field work that will train them to become significant scholars of infectious diseases. This work will be possible not only because of the facilities and faculties at the University of Ghana’s departments but also those at the NMIMR. Facilities there complement the ones that Awandare and colleagues are developing, so researchers on this campus should be able to pursue their research questions with most of the tools of modern biology. This atmosphere is one that should attract visitors from all over the world, given that Africa is a place where many pathogens are all too prevalent. From a human perspective that prevalence has terrible costs, but it does mean that disease organisms and their affected hosts are available for study. Members of the ASCB are encouraged to visit the websites for these institutions (e.g., www.waccbip.org) and think about ways in which their own work might complement and interact constructively with the problems and possibilities now available in Ghana.


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University of Colorado, Boulder

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