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MRC/DFID African Research Leader (ARL) scheme


The MRC/DFID African Research Leader scheme is a prestigious award, jointly funded by the MRC and UK’s Department for International Development (DFID). The scheme aims to strengthen research leadership across sub-Saharan Africa by attracting and retaining exceptionally talented individuals who will undertake high-quality programmes of research on key global health issues pertinent to sub-Saharan Africa.


The first two calls from this scheme supported four awards. Two of the awarded ARLs had already attracted a degree of international recognition and two were dynamic ‘rising star’ leaders.


Building on feedback from the first round, MRC/DFID agreed that future calls should focus on ‘rising star’ African Research Leader candidates.


Brief case studies of the first four awarded ARLs are set out below to demonstrate the breadth of the research areas being supported and the different models of leadership employed.

A further three ‘rising stars’ of biomedical research in Africa were selected in 2013 in the third round of the scheme.


Related links:

MRC blog Insight: Dropping in on African research leaders


ARL case studies


Health and wellbeing of female adolescents and young adults, and their infants: limiting the inter-generational risk of metabolic disease in South Africa

(ARL – Professor Shane Norris, University of Witwatersrand, South Africa

UK Principal Investigator – Professor David Dunger, University of Cambridge)


A growing challenge in sub-Saharan Africa is the complex relationship between poor maternal nutrition and postnatal stunting on the one hand; and poor diet and the increased risk of adolescent and adult obesity on the other, leading to an increased risk of type-2 diabetes and metabolic risk in future generations.


Since obtaining his ARL award Professor Norris has become Director of MRC/Wits Developmental Pathways for Health Research Unit (DPHRU), a new unit within the Department of Paediatrics aimed at researching health and wellbeing across generations. DPHRU addresses the South African national priorities of increasing life expectancy, decreasing maternal and child mortality, and strengthening health system effectiveness, all by drawing on unique longitudinal cohort data.


Professor Norris proposes to tackle this complex area of research in two key ways:

1) A comparative study of urban-rural adolescents and young adults for obesity and metabolic disease risk. This study draws upon two well-established longitudinal research platforms, the urban Birth to Twenty cohort (Bt20) and the rural Agincourt Health and Socio-Demographic Surveillance System (HDSS). Studies of contemporary adolescent and young adults (generation 1) and their offspring (generation 2) provide a unique opportunity to evaluate outcomes relating to risk factors for type-2 diabetes and metabolic disease that are transmitted across generations.


2) Exploring the intergenerational risk of metabolic disease, with a focus on how pre-pregnancy body composition impacts on weight gain and carbohydrate metabolism during pregnancy; and the association of these factors with delivery (birth) outcome and infant body composition at age one year.


Having Professor Dunger as his UK partner has brought Professor Norris in closer contact with multiple nutrition, epidemiology and metabolism groups in Cambridge and this has created a strong collaboration for preparing further targeted intervention studies.


Filariasis elimination in Africa: refining the strategies through research

(ARL – Professor John Gyapong, University of Ghana

UK Principal Investigator – Professor Moses Bockarie, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine)


Lymphatic filariasis (elephantiasis) in Ghana is caused by the parasitic worm Wucheria bancrofti transmitted by mosquito vectors. As part of a WHO global programme, the Ghana Filariasis Elimination Programme has been in operation since 2000. The programme has completed several rounds of mass drug administration with rollout in different districts to attain total national coverage. Reduction to less than 1% prevalence in some sites has been demonstrated, while in others prevalence is much higher and has remained incompatible with elimination of transmission.


Since obtaining his ARL award, Professor Gyapong has received a significant rise in seniority and responsibility with his promotion to Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research Innovation and Development at the university. He has therefore recruited four junior investigators who will complete PhDs with the University of Ghana while also taking forward the four key research questions:

  • How to improve treatment coverage and compliance, particularly in urban populations?
  • Can the use of mobile telephony platforms improve reporting and strengthen the health system?
  • When to stop mass drug administration and how to effectively monitor recrudescence?
  • How will integrated control with other neglected tropical diseases affect lymphatic filariasis elimination and the health system?


Building on his own School of Public Health position, combined with the essential partnering with the national elimination programme in Ghana and the nearby Noguchi Memorial Institute of Medical Research (with access to wet lab facilities) has provided a strong cross-institutional platform for his research.


Targeting male mosquito behaviour for vector control

(ARL – Dr Abddoulaye Diabaté, Institut de Recherche en Sciences de la Santé (IRSS)/Centre Muraz, Burkina Faso

UK Principal Investigator – Dr Frederic Tripet, Keele University)


Malaria remains a major cause of mortality in many parts of Africa. The control of mosquito populations remains one of the most efficient ways of decreasing the incidence of the disease. This is commonly done by using insecticide-treated bednets and Indoor Residual Spraying (IRS). In many areas of Africa, however, mosquito populations are becoming resistant to commonly used pesticides. Dr Diabaté’s research is to develop alternative approaches and strategies to curtail malaria and focuses on the male reproductive behaviour of Anopheles gambiae, the main vector of malaria in Africa. A. gambaie mates in flying swarms, and hence swarms constitute an ideal target for mosquito population control.


Dr Diabaté is the Head of the medical entomology laboratory at the IRSS, which is situated in a malaria endemic region of Burkina Faso. As a result of his award Dr Diabaté has been promoted to a ’Maître de Recherche’, a major step in his career progression to ’Directeur de Recherche’.


There are two main objectives of Dr Diabaté’s research programme:

1) To explore the feasibility of predicting and manipulating swarm locations for mass swarm killing. The impact of swarm control will be measured in combination with IRS on local mosquito densities.


2) To improve the mating performance of sterile laboratory-produced male mosquitoes which are released in the wild and can induce their sterility on further populations.


As part of his research he is building a unique malaria sphere which will hopefully attract researchers from across Africa and beyond.


The strong onsite mentorship of the Institute Director is extremely valuable and there is a clear vision to integrate disciplines from basic science discoveries to clinical and health benefits. His UK partner, Dr Tripet at Keele University, and broader partnering with Liverpool provide collaborative opportunities to access cutting-edge technologies not available in Burkina Faso.


Pathogenesis and management of M. ulcerans disease, Buruli ulcer

(ARL – Dr Richard Phillips, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science & Technology, Ghana

UK Principal Investigator – Dr Mark Wansbrough-Jones, St George’s University, London)


Buruli ulcer is a neglected tropical disease caused by infection with M. ulcerans, a bacteria common in rural parts of West Africa including Ghana. It causes large, disfiguring skin ulcers mainly in children aged 5 to 15 years old, although any age can be affected. The mode of transmission remains unknown but there have been major advances in understanding the mechanisms of disease since the establishment of the WHO Buruli Ulcer Initiative in 1998 together with improved diagnosis and management. Antibiotic treatment for eight weeks is now standard, although previous studies have shown that some people need only four weeks of antibiotic treatment.


The main aims of Dr Phillips research programme are:

1) To investigate markers for patients with early infection to identify patients who may respond rapidly to antibiotic treatment and for which a shortened course of antibiotic treatment will be adequate.


2) To investigate the immune response to M. ulcerans during antibiotic treatment and when patients develop a paradoxical reaction, seen in 10 per cent of cases.


To progress his programme, Dr Phillips is proposing to spend one year (out of his five-year award) in his UK partner institution, St George’s University, to develop broader European collaborations and to consolidate aspects of the proteomics work.

ARLs selected in 2013:

ARL - Dr Eugene Kinyanda, MRC/UVRI Uganda Research Unit on AIDS

UK Principal Investigator – Professor Vikram Patel, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Mental health among HIV infected CHildren and Adolescents in KAmpala, Uganda (CHAKA)


Dr Kinyanda plans to investigate the prevalence, incidence and risk factors of psychiatric disorder among HIV-infected children and adolescents in Kampala and Masaka, Uganda.


ARL - Dr Faith Osier, Kenya Medical Research Institute

UK Principal Investigator – Professor Kevin Marsh, University of Oxford

Defining the merozoite targets of protective immunity against Plasmodium falciparum malaria through multi-centre cohort studies


Dr Osier aims to use immuno-epidemiological analyses of African cohorts, combined with bioinformatics and proteomic approaches, to identify and prioritise the best immune targets on the merozoite stage of malaria-causing Plasmodium falciparum.


ARL - Dr Iruka Okeke, University of Ibadan

UK Principal Investigator – Professor Gordon Dougan, The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Cambridge

Pathogenic lineages of enteric bacteria in Nigeria


Dr Okeke aims to determine the contributions of specific E.coli and Salmonella lineages to childhood diarrhoea in Western Nigeria. She is currently in the process of relocating to Nigeria from the US.


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