Dr Sulaiman Sadi Ibrahim is the first Nigerian to receive the United Kingdom’s Wellcome Trust Career Development Award worth £969,680 to carry out research on how to control malaria-transmitting mosquitoes. In this interview, Ibrahim, who is an associate professor at Bayero University Kano (BUK), speaks on how he was able to achieve the feat, the significance of the grant and how Nigeria will benefit from the research.
Can you briefly tell us about yourself?
I was born in 1979, at Getso town in Gwarzo Local Government Area of Kano State. I obtained primary and secondary school education at Gwarzo. I studied Biochemistry at BUK and did my National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) in Ebonyi State between 2003 and 2004.
After my return from NYSC, I taught biology and chemistry to visually impaired students at the Special Education School, Tudun Maliki, Kano City, between 2004 and 2007.
While teaching special students, I enrolled for a master’s degree. Thereafter I left the special school and worked for a pharmaceutical company, JAWA International.
I joined the university as an assistant lecturer in 2008 and later secured a Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETfund) scholarship in 2011 to study molecular entomology in the United Kingdom (UK).
I obtained a PhD in 2015 at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, with my thesis on characterization of the genetic basis of insecticide resistance in the malaria vectors – the Anopheles mosquitoes.
You had won the Wellcome Trust grant before the recent one. What was it for and what was the impact?
I returned to Nigeria in 2015 and applied for a training fellowship, which was awarded to me in 2016 by the Wellcome Trust, a charity organization in the UK, to investigate the dominant malaria mosquitoes across the Sahel region and the molecular mechanism it uses to resist insecticides.
We conducted a study in the Sahel of Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad.
The grant enabled me to create my molecular biology laboratory and an equipped insectary in the Department of Biochemistry at BUK, with an independent solar power supply.
The laboratory benefited the project, staff members and students of BUK, as well as other universities and institutes across Nigeria. The findings of our research across Sahel were published in journals and they impacted policies and decision-making.
Also, the grant enabled me to support undergraduate and postgraduate students who carried out high-impact research works not related to the grant, which were published in peer-reviewed journals, leading to several students getting jobs in academic settings.
How did you secure the current Wellcome Trust award?
The success of the training fellowship placed me in an advantageous position to apply for the next step, which is the Career Development Award.
I was awarded the grant in September, this year. The project will span eight years and is aimed at identifying the malaria mosquitoes which will become the dominant species in the future warmer world (when temperature extremes become the norm due to climate change).
The genetic mechanisms which the malaria mosquitoes (insects are cold-blooded; they don’t have efficient mechanisms to regulate body temperature) will use to survive in the harsh environment of the future and how we can target such genetic mechanisms for control of the malaria mosquitoes.
How are you going to utilize the grant in Nigeria?
We will carry out this project with the support of the Center for Research in Infectious Diseases (CRID) in Cameroon and the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) in the UK.
The support from these institutions will ensure timely and hassle-free purchase of more state-of-the-art equipment to upgrade my laboratory in Kano and delivery of reagents and consumables which will enable undergraduate and postgraduate students to key in and carry out their research projects.
These students will also include those I will co-supervise from other universities and institutions through collaborations with other academics/researchers as our fieldwork will cut across the five eco-climatic zones of Nigeria and South of Cameroon.
Also, we can afford to send some of the students to either the CRID or the LSTM for further training; expanding their horizons and making them more competitive in the job market.
The project will enable us to better understand the role of mosquitoes in malaria transmission across Nigeria and other endemic countries; the mechanisms the malaria mosquitoes use to become more resistant to insecticide-treated nets; the mechanisms which some of them use to survive in the dry season when temperatures are extremely high, and the way some of them will adjust to survive in the future when climate change makes the world extremely hot. All the findings will enable policymakers and stakeholders to plan control strategies based on scientific evidence.
The findings from our study will be made available to the National Malaria Elimination Program (NMEP) in Nigeria and the donors supporting them, and other stakeholders such as the World Health Organization (WHO), and the public through publications in scientific journals and conferences for optimal uptake and utilization.
Malaria is endemic in Nigeria; what more do you think should be done to tackle its burden?
Nigeria has the highest burden of malaria in the world, accounting for 32 per cent of all malaria-related deaths globally. While this is alarming, significant progress is being made through the concerted effort of the government through the NMEP and donors such as the Global Fund and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
In addition to the continuous distribution of artemisinin combination therapy drugs to primary healthcare facilities across the country, there is also a sustained distribution of malaria control tools, such as the long-lasting insecticidal nets which are distributed freely, targeting the populace, particularly pregnant women visiting healthcare facilities.
These activities are highly commendable and help to curb the trajectory of malaria. The PMI-Vector Link program of USAID supports NMEP with surveillance, insecticide resistance monitoring and vector control – important information which are necessary for guidance on what works and what does not.
As antimalarial drug resistance and insecticide resistance can be heterogeneous across even short distances, there is a need to improve resistance surveillance and its mechanism in Nigeria.
To achieve these, we need to develop stronger institutions such as the CRID in Cameroon, KEMRI in Kenya and Ifakara in Tanzania which are internationally competitive, attracting grants every year and carrying out various projects targeting malaria and other tropical/infectious diseases independent of their governments .
Strong institutions working in synergy with the control program will allow for optimal uptake of evidence, influencing policies and decision-making, and reducing the burden of malaria.
Nigeria is bedevilled with poor funding and attention for research; what is the way out?
Nigeria is blessed with human capital and renowned scientists who are experts in their fields. Also, the government has policies and structures in place. However, as it is in other parts of the world, implementation strategies can be improved in Nigeria.
There is also the need for more investment in research, development and innovation. The Nigerian government, through the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND) and the Petroleum Trust Development Fund (PTDF), has been sponsoring scholars, especially early career researchers, to pursue higher education within and outside the country.
not only that; TETFUND provides bursaries in the form of grants to researchers across Nigeria through its annual National Research Fund (NRF), as well as infrastructural development in institutes across the country.
These are commendable efforts which we need to explore more to produce translational research outputs which will allow us to attract more grants from other donors such as the Wellcome Trust and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF).