African Research Leader scheme

The African Research Leader (ARL) scheme is a prestigious award, jointly funded under the MRC/DFID concordat agreement. 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 the region.

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 (KNUST), 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 people of any age can be affected. How a person becomes infected remains unknown but there have been major advances in understanding the mechanisms of disease since the establishment of the WHO Global Buruli Ulcer Initiative (, together with improved diagnosis and management. Antibiotic treatment for eight weeks is now standard, although some people may need only four weeks of antibiotic treatment.

The ARL award has helped Dr Phillips with his academic career and he has recently progressed from being a Research Fellow to a post as Senior Lecturer in Medicine at KNUST and he is looking forward to further promotion.

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.

Dr Phillips will spend one year (out of his five-year award) in his UK partner institution, St George’s University, to work on improving technical assays and analysis including microarrays and proteomics work. This will also enable him to develop broader European collaborations and to consolidate aspects of the proteomics work before returning to Ghana.

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

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

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

Although sub-Saharan Africa shoulders the greatest burden of youth HIV, little research has been conducted to better understand psychiatric problems (e.g. depression, anxiety and behaviour disorders) among HIV-infected children and adolescents in the region. The aim of this study is to investigate the impact of psychiatric disorders on HIV-infected children in Uganda and the implications for service provision.

Dr Kinyanda plans to investigate the prevalence, incidence and risk factors of psychiatric disorder among HIV-infected children and adolescents in urban Kampala and more rural Masaka, Uganda. He will also examine the help-seeking behaviour of these adolescents to identify service delivery gaps in Ugandan HIV services. The results of this study will provide invaluable information to policymakers and service providers about how to strengthen the provision of appropriate and effective mental health care for this vulnerable group.

Since obtaining an ARL award Dr Kinyanda has been promoted to Senior Investigator Scientist at the MRC/UVRI Unit; appointed Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Makerere University; and made an honorary Professor in the Faculty of Epidemiology & Population Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM).  These appointments have increased Dr Kinyanda’s collaborative opportunities and his own scientific profile both in Africa and beyond.

Professor Patel, UK partner and mentor to Dr Kinyanda, has fostered greater contact between the ARL and scientists and health professionals at the LSHTM and other UK institutions through a three month visit to the UK including an attachment with the adolescent HIV clinic at Mortimer Market Centre.

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

ARL - Dr Faith Osier, Kenya Medical Research Institute-Centre for Geographic Medicine Research, Coast

UK Principal Investigator – Professor Kevin Marsh, University of Oxford

In malaria endemic regions, young children under the age of five are susceptible to severe and complicated forms of malaria, while older children and young adults experience only milder forms of the illness, and gradually appear to remain symptom-free despite being infected. How this immunity is acquired remains unknown, but it is thought to arise through the development of protective antibodies triggered against specific malaria antigens.  It is only as a result of advances in technology that it is becoming possible to identify which of the many thousands of proteins that make up a malaria parasite are the triggers/targets of the protective antibodies.

Before obtaining her ARL award Dr Osier held an intermediate level fellowship from the Wellcome Trust.  Since securing the ARL award she has been appointed to various prestigious positions significantly boosting her CV.  She is now Visiting Professor of Immunology at Oxford University, Chair of the Bioscience Department at KEMRI-CGMRC, Adjunct Associate Professor in the Biomedical Sciences Department of nearby Pwani University and Secretary General to the Federation of African Immunological Societies (FAIS). She has also been nominated to AcademiaNet, an Expert Database for Outstanding Female Academics.

Dr Osier aims to use immuno-epidemiological analyses of multi-centre 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. It is her hope that building on this new knowledge it will in the longer term be possible to develop an effective malaria vaccine.  She is already in discussions with scientists at the Jenner Institute for optimising her research to be on the right trajectory towards vaccine development.

Dr Osier’s benefits from the long standing expertise of her UK mentor, Professor Marsh,  but increasingly her own profile and leadership is being recognised with the establishment of new independent collaborations with Southern partners.

Pathogenic lineages of enteric bacteria in Nigeria

ARL - Dr Iruka Okeke, University of Ibadan, Nigeria

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

Childhood diarrhoea and bacterial bloodstream infections account for a very high number of illnesses and deaths among children under-five in Nigeria and other parts of Africa. Enteric pathogens, such as Escherichia coli and Salmonella enterica, are major causes of these infections, however very little is known about the epidemiology of these bacteria in Nigeria, including which lineages account for the burden of disease.

With her ARL award Dr Okeke has relocated from her faculty position at Haverford College in the United States to pursue her career as a Professor at the University of Ibadan.  

Dr Okeke will use a case-control study design to determine the contributions of specific E. coli and Salmonella lineages to childhood diarrhoea in Western Nigeria. She will use molecular methods to characterize the different strains of bacteria, their evolution and antimicrobial resistance.

Dr Okeke will build on collaborative links with other regional laboratories and extend some of the expertise built at Ibadan to those labs. The research will therefore build capacity in the area of molecular bacteriology and provide a collaborative link between West African scientists and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, where the principal investigator is located.

A further 3 ARLs were awarded in 2015:

Improving detection of depression in primary care in Sub-Saharan Africa (IDEAS Study)

ARL - Dr Abebaw Fekadu, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia

UK Principal Investigator – Professor Martin Prince, King's College London

Dr Fekadu aims to develop and pilot an intervention that improves detection of depression in primary care in primary care in Ethiopia and other low income settings.

Adolescent Executive Functioning Association with Scholastic Outcomes, Risk Taking Behaviour and Medical Adherence in the Context of HIV

ARL - Dr Amina Ali Abubakar, Pwani University, Kenya

UK Principal Investigator – Professor Charles Newton, University of Oxford

Dr Abubakar plans to investigate the impact of HIV on executive functioning of adolescents and its association to scholastic outcomes, medical adherence and risk taking behaviour, by comparing adolescents who are infected or exposed to HIV with those unexposed to HIV.

The pathogenesis and treatment of nodding syndrome

ARL - Dr Richard Idro, Makerere University, Uganda

UK Principal Investigator – Professor Kevin Marsh, University of Oxford

Dr Idro aims to test the hypothesis that nodding syndrome is a neuro-inflammatory disorder induced by O.volvulus or its symbiotic bacteria, Wolbachia and to determine whether these may be targeted in treatment.