#WhyIScience Q&A: How a global collaboration is boosting science and public health in Senegal

Aida Badiane and Katie Siddle talk about their work on malaria and other fever-causing pathogens and the changes they’ve seen in public health and research in the West African country.

Aida Badiane (left) and Katie Siddle (right)
Credit: Scott Sassone
Aida Badiane (left) and Katie Siddle (right)

For more than two decades, infectious disease researchers at University Cheikh Anta Diop (UCAD) in Dakar, Senegal, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health have worked together, using genomic technologies, to learn about how malaria parasites spread and how they can be stopped. During that time, there has been a significant decline in the burden of malaria in the West African country. This success is now allowing UCAD and Broad researchers to study other kinds of pathogens that cause malaria-like illness.

Two of those collaborators, Aida Badiane and Katie Siddle, recently sat down with us in a global health edition of a #WhyIScience Q&A to talk about their latest work and the impact of their collaboration on science and public health in Senegal. Their research is part of the Broad Global Health Initiative, which aims to use Broad science and strong partnerships to tackle global health challenges.

Badiane is a professor of parasitology and mycology at UCAD who started out doing lab research on malaria drug-resistance and immunology, but in the last year has moved into public health and field research. She is recruiting patients from clinics and communities to participate in studies on how to use genetic data from malaria parasites in their blood to develop and assess strategies for malaria control and elimination in Senegal. 

Siddle is a postdoc in Pardis Sabeti’s lab at the Broad and Harvard University. She has been working with Badiane and others at UCAD for the last five years to use sequencing and other genomic approaches to understand the epidemiology of infectious diseases beyond malaria, including those typically caused by viruses. 

Q: Why has malaria prevalence decreased so much in Senegal? 

Badiane: That has been a result of decades of effort by our country’s National Malaria Control Program (NMCP), including their research and collaboration with scientists in Senegal. Scientists have helped the NMCP assess their strategies, such as introducing bed nets, that have really helped to bring down the number of malaria cases. 

Q: Now that there’s so much less malaria, how has that affected your research?

Siddle: Even though malaria incidence is declining in Senegal, we still have a lot of patients coming in with acute fevers and other symptoms similar to malaria. We’re trying to understand what are the other causes of these diseases. We're using genome sequencing methods to look in an unbiased way in samples from these patients to see if we can detect what may be the cause of this infection.

We've been identifying some viruses, like dengue virus, and also some bacterial infections, like Borrelia, as possible causes. We’re hoping that we can build this project out further and study the causes of non-malarial fevers in different demographic and climatic environments across Senegal. We think that the dominant causes of non-malarial fevers will be different in these different areas. 

Badiane: I began my research in malaria, and now I have begun to learn about other pathogens. I hope that this collaboration with the Broad can be extended to other diseases, so that we can learn as much about them as we have about malaria.

Q: Why is it important to learn about these other pathogens?

Badiane: I think this will help our clinicians in Senegal to think about other causes of illness  beyond malaria, because when the malaria test comes back negative, they tend to just give antibiotics, without knowing what the cause of the fever is. And this is a cause of drug resistance in bacteria. Reducing antibiotic resistance is one of the objectives of our Ministry of Health.

At a health center near Kolda, Senegal, Siddle and Badiane review patient enrollment for malaria drug efficacy studies. Credit: Abdoulaye Tine

Q: Another way that scientists at UCAD and the Broad have been collaborating is through a program that trains scientists in genomic technologies and analysis. What has been the impact of this training?

Siddle: This training is part of a program called the African Center of Excellence in Genomics of Infectious Disease, which is funded by the World Bank. Through this program, we have trained lab scientists and bioinformaticians from across West Africa, including Senegal, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Liberia, on genomic sequencing methods and data analysis. 

One of the biggest changes I've seen from this program is an acceleration in how people are taking those techniques and applying them to new questions. In the beginning, people were  mostly just using the techniques in the way that had been taught in the training program.

But more recently, students have been taking those techniques and applying them to new questions, and in particular bringing them back to malaria, and applying those same sequencing techniques to now address questions like drug resistance and the genetic diversity of malaria. That's really cool to see: people are taking these techniques and applying them to questions that they're interested in, and thinking beyond applying them to one particular pathogen or problem.

Badiane: This training is having a huge impact on students, and also for all of us. I and many scientists in my lab have been trained in courses taught by researchers from the Broad Institute and Harvard, and over the years, the capacity-building and technology transfer have also benefited our labs in Senegal. This has been tremendously helpful for the research at UCAD. We are now well equipped with the latest tools and techniques, such as next-generation sequencing, and we are able to run the technology ourselves. 

We do face problems with ordering reagents due to the fact that many institutions in Africa do not use these technologies, but we hope that these problems will be solved in the future. Nevertheless, many students are doing their thesis projects entirely within Senegal and this was possible because of the training, technology transfer and support of our partners at the Broad Institute.