Star of Africa

Enock Matovu's groundbreaking research into sleeping sickness is helping to save lives and winning him honours

November 20, 2008

A Ugandan biomedical scientist considered one of Africa's research stars has won the Royal Society Pfizer Award and a University of Glasgow honorary research fellowship.

Enock Matovu, senior lecturer in the faculty of veterinary medicine at Makerere University in Kampala, has carried out groundbreaking research into sleeping sickness, or trypanosomiasis. The disease, which is caused by a parasite transmitted by the tsetse fly, is endemic in Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Sudan.

His findings about drug resistance in the parasite led Ugandan authorities to order a change in drug legislation, potentially saving thousands of lives.

Dr Matovu said: "We get several thousand cases of sleeping sickness a year compared with tens of thousands of cases of malaria. But with malaria, most of us have the capability of self-curing. Each and every person with sleeping sickness will die without timely treatment."

Previously, patients were treated with an arsenic-based drug so toxic that it killed about 5 per cent of those who took it.

Dr Matovu made a key discovery in identifying resistant parasites in northern Uganda, which has led to the Ugandan National Trypanosomiasis Programme's using a less toxic drug. "Still we have few drugs (to help those with sleeping sickness), but with more understanding of this mechanism, I hope we shall treat more and more cases more effectively and should see a reduction in this major public-health problem."

Dr Matovu began researching sleeping sickness after completing an undergraduate degree in zoology. He won a World Health Organisation scholarship for a sandwich PhD programme split between Makerere and the University of Bern, where he forged links with researchers at Glasgow.

Mike Barrett, professor of biochemical parasitology at Glasgow, said: "Dr Matovu's greatest strength lies in his ability to link hard-core scientific research to the on-field situation. He is undoubtedly one of Africa's research stars."

Glasgow's principal, Sir Muir Russell, last week hosted a dinner in Dr Matovu's honour after he presented his latest research to leading specialists.

Dr Matovu said working with Glasgow had been invaluable because he did not have access to comparable facilities in Uganda. He predicted that the Glasgow collaboration would become "stronger and stronger".

"I am greatly honoured and privileged to have been selected for the Pfizer Award. In addition, it has brought me £60,000 in research money, and that means buying equipment for my lab in Uganda, a real blessing."

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