Looking into the vortex

2007-12-13 00:00

“Calm down and go and repeat the experiment.” This was the advice given over the phone to Thumbi Ndung’u when, while working on his PhD at Harvard University, he phoned his medical professor to say that he might have developed the first infectious molecular clone of the world’s most rapidly spreading subtype of the HI-virus.

For years, Ndung’u had been trying to clone the strain of HIV-1 subtype C, which is found in Africa, knowing that it would be a breakthrough which could lead to therapies for those infected with the virus and to vaccines to halt its spread.

“I was working in the laboratory, doing a complicated test to find out whether I had a clone or not. I had been struggling to get the project to work — and then I saw the colour of the plate change,” says Ndung’u, when we met for an interview.

Watching his head shaking incredulously as he recalls the moment, it is difficult not to relive vicariously its significance in Ndung’u’s life and, indeed, its importance for medicine.

What Ndung’u only mentions later is that, at the time, as a researcher barely in his thirties, he had already been working on this project for years — and that it took another year to confirm that he had, in fact, developed the first infectious molecular clone of the particular HIV strain. “That was a very exciting time,” says Ndung’u, who is currently working at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Centre for the Aids Programme of Research in South Africa (Caprisa), where he is the head of the centre’s Pathogenesis Research Programme.

Now 38, Ndung’u recently received the prestigious vice-chancellor’s research award from the university council for exceptional research and research-related scholarly activities. The young Kenyan-born professor, who joined the Doris Duke Medical Research Insitute as asssociate professor in HIV/Aids research in 2005, is initiating an exciting new dimension in research at Caprisa.

“We are trying to understand, in the laboratory, why some people are resistant to HIV and what the biological mechanisms are that make people resistant to infection. It is a very exciting field of research. I also have a few students who are working on viral entry — how the virus actually enters the cells. That is one of the most important factors to understand, because if we can do that, then we can work towards stopping the virus from entering the cells.”

According to Ndung’u, there are different laboratories focusing on HIV and Aids around the world. “But not many of these have focused on genetic factors. It is a difficult field of investigation because it requires large numbers of study participants to address it. Being in KwaZulu-Natal, we can actually see what is happening to people with HIV by observing populations. We are unique in that sense.”

He might be on the verge of a medical breakthrough, but Ndung’u stresses, throughout the interview, that his real passion is his students. He works with the masters and PhD students, most of whom are dealing with one or other aspect of HIV/Aids.

“During my career, I have always worked with people who have mentored me,” he says. “These people were incredibly supportive of my work, each and every step of the way. They were true mentors. I hope I can do the same for other people.

“There is nothing as exciting as giving somebody a new perspective and seeing them change and mature in their research,” he says.

“And there is so much to be learnt from good students — they give you feedback and have their own ideas. We can be proud of our young people. Living in a province like this without doubt gives rise to people of a certain quality.

“In KwaZulu-Natal, we are at the epicentre of the HIV epidemic. One of the things that makes me very excited about working here is being confronted with the realities of the enormous problem every day. And with that comes enormous opportunities. The students I work with are constantly excited about the fact that they are playing a part towards solving some of the problems.”

Ndung’u, who is married to a fellow HIV researcher and who has two children, aged 10 and seven, spends as much time with his family as possible. One of 11 siblings, he was raised in the rural coffee-growing highlands of Kenya. His father was a teacher of English and history and his mother was a housewife.

“I grew up in a strict Christian family. As a teacher, my father valued education and placed a great deal of emphasis on the importance of hard work.”

Ndung’u recalls being “not very clever, but not too bad” at his high school in Kenya. He went on to the University of Nairobi to study veterinary medicine. “I never wanted to be a vet and, already at vet school, I knew that I would go into biomedical research,” he says.

“After vet school, a professor at the University of Nairobi, who had a grant from USAid to study bilharzia, hired me as his research assistant. That was an amazing opportunity for me. It helped me to understand research methodology. I worked in that position at the University of Nairobi for three years.”

He was then awarded a scholarship to do a PhD at Harvard. It was at Harvard that he met Max Essex, who became his PhD supervisor — a mentor who has had a profound effect on Ndung’u.

“Max is a very humble man and incredibly insightful. He loves the African students and feels strongly that the way to change things in Africa is to train young people from Africa. As a virologist he believes in a multi-pronged approach to solving problems. He is passionate about science and about using it as an instrument that can make a difference. He opened up a whole world for me.”

Ndung’u’s doctoral thesis won Harvard’s 2001 Edgar Haber Award in Biological Sciences. He describes his achievements at Harvard as “incredibly proud moments”.

“As a student from Africa, I had not had the exposure to research which some of my colleagues had.”

Once he had finished his PhD, he worked at Harvard for another year, and then decided it was time to return to Africa. “I felt strongly that I needed to make a difference.”

After finishing his post-doctorate, he found out that Essex was establishing an HIV research laboratory in Botswana. “He asked me if I would be interested in starting the research. I jumped at the opportunity as I wanted to come back to Africa and contribute directly.”

Ndung’u worked in Botswana for three years, a time which he describes as “very exciting” because he began to work on his own research. “I wanted to devote more of my time and energy to mentoring people in research — and that is how I ended up coming here,” he says of his present role.

Asked whether he has a philosophy on life, he responds: “When I was at the University of Nairobi, I belonged to a Christian group. Someone came to talk to us and said we should try to blossom where we are planted.

“I would like to blossom wherever I am planted. I am going to find myself in many situations and I believe that, whatever situation I find myself in, I should try to make the best of it. To use the opportunity and to overcome the challenges.”

Right now, South Africa is the place to be. “I am very devoted to my students right now. We have a lot of exciting projects under way, which are in the fledgling stage. I must be here to see them through.”

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