Dar es Salaam. Name of Tanzanian medical researcher Julie Makani, 49, shot to the limelight yet again this week after BBC announced its 2019 list of 100 inspiring and influential women from around the world.
Dr Makani, who now serves as associate professor in the Department of Haematology and Blood Transfusion at the Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences (Muhas), has dedicated her life –in the past two decades—to research on treatment for Sickle Cell Disease and working to influence health policies so that individuals across Africa can access vital diagnostic tests and medicines.
The winner of the Royal Society Pfizer Award, Dr Makani comes from one of five countries in the world with the highest estimated number Sickle Cell Disease (SCD) births annually.
She is trying to establish life-changing interventions including blood transfusion and hydroxyurea, a medicine with strong effects on the bone marrow— a step towards the treatment of Sickle Cell Disease.
Currently, she is leading a team that is researching on a cure using gene therapy, as part of the expanding scope of research on Sickle cell disease research in Tanzania.
This is expected to have a significant impact in raising awareness about a disease that affects many people in Africa and the achievements made to improve healthcare.
Why she chose to research on SCD
In an interview with the New StatesmanAmerica, years back, Dr Makani stated why she decided to invest her time and effort on Sickle Cell Disease.
“It has hardly been recognised from a public health perspective, but the burden of sickle cell is becoming increasingly visible,’’ she said at the time.
“In Tanzania, about 8,000 to 11,000 children are born every year with sickle-cell disease and the majority don’t know they have it, so up to 90 per cent are not likely to survive into adulthood,’’ she explained, referring to statistics released during that time.
“...in 2010, it was 100 years since it was discovered and there’s only one drug licensed for use,” explains Dr Makani.
“I have cousins who have been affected; of five of them, three died from the disease. I actually first spent three years working on malaria. My father told me: ‘You should have started on sickle-cell disease earlier’ ... Not that it would have made much of a difference.”
Not new in biomedical research
Dr Makani’s interest in biomedical research as earned her fame around the world. In 2004, she received a Wellcome Trust training fellowship and established the Sickle Cell Disease (SCD) programme at Muhas with prospective surveillance of over 2,000 SCD patients.
In sickle cell disease, according to medical sources, red blood cells are abnormally shaped, causing problems with the flow of blood through the body and the resulting transport of oxygen throughout the body.
The disease causes reoccurring episodes of pain and severe organ damage which can result in death.
It is estimated that eight to eleven thousand children per year are born with sickle-cell disease in Tanzania.
Dr Makani’s began her work on SCD work at Muhimbili National Hospital by examining factors such as malaria, bacterial infections and stroke, which are considered to significantly contribute to illness and death when interventions are available.
In collaboration with her colleagues, she has gone further to develop a biomedical research and healthcare programme which is one of the largest SCD cohorts from one centre in the world.
Dr Makani has worked with other experts to establish networks at a national level in the regional Sickle Cell Disease Research Network of East and Central Africa (Redac) and Africa (Sickle Charta – Consortium for Health, Advocacy, Research and Training in Africa).
The co-founder of the Sickle Cell Foundation of Tanzania, seeks to use sickle cell disease as a model to establish scientific and healthcare solutions in Africa that are locally relevant as well as having global significance.
Globally, she is on the technical advisory group of Global SCD Research Network, co-chairing the working group responsible for hydroxyurea therapy in Africa.
Achieving success in sickle cell disease will illustrate that with effective global partnerships, inequities in biomedical science and health can be addressed and significant advances can be achieved.
Where was she educated?
Makani began her education at St Constantine’s Primary school in Arusha.
At university, she trained in medicine in Tanzania at the then University of Dar es Salaam’s Muhimbili University College of Health Sciences—now known as Muhas. She obtained her degree in 1994.
Later, she took her post-graduate studies in internal medicine at the Hammersmith Hospital, Royal Postgraduate Medical School, University of London, on a Commonwealth scholarship.
She then went to Oxford as a Research Fellow at Nuffield Department of Medicine, University of Oxford and received a four-year PhD training fellowship from the Wellcome Trust in 2003 to study sickle cell disease in Tanzania.
She completed her PhD on the clinical epidemiology of sickle cell disease (SCD).