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What you need to know about bi-lateral partnerships

February 16, 2016

Desiree Angelle LaBeaud, professor of pediatrics (infectious diseases)

Desiree Angelle LaBeaud

The impact of Stanford research is global and our faculty collaborate with researchers from all over the world. While it is common for Stanford researchers to take overseas trips to work in the field, it is typically less common for their in-country partners to come to Stanford. This is especially true when research is taking place in a low-resourced setting and funding is an obstacle. OIA had the opportunity to meet with OIA seed grant recipient, Angelle Desiree LaBeaud, associate professor of pediatrics and Bryson Ndenga, her collaborator and a co-investigator at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI).

Q: Tell me a bit about your research and how you came about working in Kenya.

ADL: I have an ongoing National Institutes of Health research project grant to study chikungunya and dengue in four sites in Kenya. The collaboration between Stanford and Kenya Medical Research Institute and the Kenya Ministry of Health began in July 2014 and focuses on determining the burden of chikungunya and dengue virus transmission in Kenya. This is an understudied yet important contributor to febrile illness in Kenya.

I started working in Kenya as a pediatric infectious disease fellow in 2003 at Case Western Reserve University. My mentor, Charles King, had a large program in Kenya that I joined and at the time I was conducting research on Rift Valley fever virus epidemiology. I met different partners, integrated with the Ministry of Health and connected with researchers at KEMRI. I met Dr. Ndenga through my KEMRI partners and have been working with him since 2013.

Q: What is the importance of chikungunya & dengue diagnosis of these diseases?

ADL: While the mortality rate is not as high as with malaria, dengue is one of leading causes of child death in certain areas of the world. Diagnosing dengue has become incredibly important. Proper fluid management during this critical phase of the disease can prevent dengue mortality. Follow up and supportive care can be life saving. Chikungunya has emerged and is causing outbreaks across the Western hemisphere. Recent evidence suggests that chikungunya is even causing mortality. More importantly there are long-term health consequences from the effects of chikungunya (and other mosquito-borne viruses) that can impact a person’s life. For instance, the crippling arthritis resulting from chikungunya can persist for years and affects a person’s health, family, work, and family income. Understanding these infections are important in their own right, not only because of their early fatality, but also because of their long-term health consequences.

Q: What was your strategy in building your research team?

ADL: When I was preparing my research grant for this project, it was important for me to have a multi-disciplinary team. For the work in Kenya, I needed infectious disease, entomology, climate science and virology expertise. Dr. Bryson Ndenga, a co-Investigator at KEMRI is an expert in entomology. He fit in well, not only for his expertise, but also for his personality and leadership skills.

Dr. Ndenga is the project manager of our western Kenya team and leads a multi-disciplinary group of researchers in the western Kenya study sites. He is our eyes and ears on the ground and having him here is an opportunity to interact with the Stanford team, and to strengthen communication and collaboration between our two labs.

Q: How does Dr. Ndenga extend your research and how is it a bi-lateral collaboration?

ADL: During his visit, he gave a full week of lectures and trained our team on the basics of medical entomology, including a practicum on mosquito identification in collaboration with the Prakash lab at Stanford. This is timely since a postdoc fellow in my laboratory is preparing to start novel virus detection in our vector samples.

Dr. Ndenga also attended one-on-one short trainings in my lab on different methods of chikungunya and dengue diagnosis and will allow the transfer of crucial technical knowledge to the laboratory team back in Kenya. We will be able to identify practical intervention measures through capacity building and creation of public awareness of these threats to human health, and ultimately, save lives.

We also met with researchers within my discipline but at other labs. Meeting with researchers from the Pinsky and Relman labs extends our research, as there are some techniques and technologies that are only available here.

"When you take blood from a child, you want to get the most information and data from that interaction as possible to maximize the potential benefits."

Q: I understand that you set up a good number of meetings for Dr. Ndenga to meet with other researchers outside your discipline. Why was that the case?

ADL: One of the reasons I came to Stanford was because of the multidisciplinary nature of research here; I know that I cannot solve the world’s problems on my own. I like to connect with people from different fields that have different expertise and look at issues from different angles and perspectives. Dr. Ndenga brings a Kenyan perspective to everything and is also well-connected.

Dr. Ndenga joined meetings that weren’t directly related to our research as it’s these connections with people that make all the difference. These initial conversations were opportunities to brainstorm ways to collaborate in the future.

"Collaboration: It's all about the people"

Q: Dr. Ndenga, how would you summarize your experience here?

BN: This has been a great opportunity for me. We, as a developing country, need to learn how to develop and offer practical solutions to the tropical diseases that we are facing.

It was great to meet so many teams and to see how they collaborate and share with each other. I met with other researchers and we discussed possible future research opportunities. I am in the midst of developing a pilot study with bioengineering PhD students, so my visit has already opened doors for future research projects between KEMRI and Stanford.

I am also happy to extend my Kenyan expertise to other researchers that would like to conduct research in Kenya, regardless of their discipline.