In many African regions people, especially children, may become easily infected by two different agents, hence develop two diseases at the same time. But according to the type of co-infection they experience, the immune responses of their organism may be very different.
Beninese senior immunologist Sedaminou Judith Gbenoudon has for years been studying children with coinfections. She has observed that simultaneous infection with nematodes and the malaria-causing parasite Plasmodium falciparum is an alleviating factor for both diseases. Opposite to this, coinfection with Candida albicans and P. falciparum often aggravates both conditions.
These surprising results are changing the perception of malaria and other diseases and raising new perspectives on treatment. For this work, she was awarded TWAS-Abdool Karim Prize at the 28th General Meeting of The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) on 27 November in Trieste, Italy.
"This prize is not only my prize, but a prize for all my team that I'm happy to share with them," Gbenoudon said after the award was announced. "In addition, it comes as a great achievement, an important feed-back to all my years of scientific engagement."
The prize is named for TWAS Fellow Quarraisha Abdool Karim, the co-founder and the scientific director of the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA) in Durban. Her discoveries have shaped life-saving clinical guidelines for patients infected with HIV in countries across the world.
Gbenoudon is the director of the Laboratory of Immunology for Infectious and Allergic diseases (IMMIA) at the Institute for Applied Biomedical Sciences (ISBA), in Cotonou, Benin. She is also a research and teaching professor in the faculty for science and technique, University of Abomey Calavi, Benin, where she has been in charge of cooperation affairs for the past five years, ending late in 2018.
She obtained her masters of science in biochemistry from the University of Compiegne, France in 1995; she then moved back to Benin and later to Hamburg University, Germany, where she earned her PhD in immunology in 2001. Then she moved to Hamburg Institute for Tropical Medicine, where she deciphered the molecular mechanisms of humoral immunity regulation.
In 2004 she was appointed to the Institute for Immunology and Parasitology in Bonn, Germany, where she established the Immune Regulation Laboratory, dedicated to immune tolerance. Later she served as associated senior scientific officer-immunologist at the Medical Research Council (UK), in the Gambia.
Family reasons called her back to Benin in 2007. But this was an auspicious event, as she served the Ministry of Higher Education and Research as the founding director of the informatics department, which she established and led for four years. In Benin, she also started her local investigations on coinfections in children, which represent a critical event in her country.
Treating a mild infection helps treating malaria
"Malaria is a severe life-threatening disease where the immune system plays an important role. This turns to be especially true when we face rapid infant death due to what seem to be only malaria complications," she explained. The observation of sudden deaths prompted her and her team to investigate more deeply the role of specific cells that modulate immunity and antibody production.
Results showed that rapid deaths in children with malaria were often ascribed to simultaneous infection with the fungus Candida albicans. "We proved that in the case of candida and malaria coinfection, the immune system of the patient produces high amounts of antibodies that promote inflammation," Gbenoudon explained. "This in turn activates a cascade of reactions involving a blood defence system called 'the complement', which unfortunately in the end leads to anaemia, a well-known malaria complication."
These results represent a turning point in the current approach to malaria: treatment of a mild infection as candidiasis can be beneficial to prevent or treat malaria also.
But a related finding was striking as well. In another kind of coinfection, patients achieve better control of malaria, avoiding sudden death. "Children very often walk barefoot and become infected with worms (the diseases are called ascariasis and ankylostomiasis). In this case cells of their immune system cross-talk in a positive way, ending in malaria controlling worm infections, and worm infection controlling malaria."
Both findings have direct implications for diagnosis and treatment of these diseases.
A commitment to gender awareness
Aside from basic and applied research, Gbenoudon is also active in gender-awareness issues, where she has been involved since 2011 having actively organised many events to bringing more women into scientific careers.
Each semester, Gbenoudon conducts one to two training events in scientific and project writing for women scientists. And last year, she was nominated among the "2017 women for science" by the Network of African Science Academies (NASAC), a collaborative initiative where the InterAcademy Partnership, based in Trieste at TWAS's headquarters, is also involved.
For her scientific achievements, she has received prizes and scholarships from a variety of organisations, including: the United States International Leadership Program in Science; the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the German Research Council (DFG), and the Spanish Women for Africa Foundation.
"I expect that this important recognition from TWAS will help me to achieve a lot in my future scientific career," she said. "In Benin, scientists are not working in fully-equipped laboratories. Therefore, I will use this prize not only to build up projects in the same field, but also to buy equipment. Because we have little instrumentation, I often have to use my own salary to travel and visit neighbouring laboratories to complete my investigations."
TWAS-Abdool Karim Prize
The TWAS - Abdool Karim Prize is named after TWAS Fellow Quarraisha Abdool Karim, who is generously offering a cash award of USD5,000. The prize is designed to honour women scientists in low-income African countries for their achievements in biological sciences. Abdool Karim is the scientific director of the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA) in Durban, South Africa, which she co-founded in 2002. She has been a pioneer of life-saving research that protects African women from HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. Her groundbreaking discovery – a gel called tenofovir that, if topically applied to the genital area, reduced HIV infection in women by 39% – won her international headlines in the New York Times, the Guardian, the Washington Post, Nature and the Wall Street Journal. In 2014 Abdool Karim was named winner of the 2014 TWAS-Lenovo Science Prize. She was elected a TWAS Fellow in 2015.