In the summer of 2002, Jeremie Thouakesseh Zoueu's two-year-old daughter showed all of the classic symptoms of malaria: fever, chills, lethargy, sweating. "The only way we could know for sure that she had malaria," says Zoueu, "was to have her tested at a local hospital in the capital city of Yamoussoukro, Côte d'Ivoire, where we lived."
The test results took hours to complete. "It was difficult to wait, especially knowing that rapid intervention would mean less suffering and a greater likelihood of a complete recovery."
The test was done in early morning. The results arrived in late afternoon. They were negative. But subsequent, more comprehensive, testing showed that his little girl did indeed have malaria – in fact, a rare type that infects the brain and is difficult to diagnose.
Some 10 years later, Zoueu is happy to report that his daughter is fine. She is now a healthy and vibrant adolescent. Her bout with malaria is a distant memory.
The experience, however, did change her father's career path. "I knew there had to be a better, quicker way to detect malaria", explains Zoueu, "and I was determined to try to find one."
Zoueu is trained as a laser physicist. He earned an undergraduate degree in physics at the University of Cocody in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, and a PhD at Université Pierre et Marie Curie, Paris 6, in France. He became an Associate of the Abdus Salam International Centre of Physics (ICTP) in 1999 and has returned to Trieste many times during the past decade to participate in research and training workshops. In 2008, he was awarded a TWAS research grant.
"The conventional method of diagnosing malaria is very labour-intensive and time-consuming", Zoueu observes. "Highly skilled medical technicians must take blood samples, meticulously smear and stain the blood on a slide set beneath the microscope, and then count the blood cells. Once the number of suspect blood cells passes a certain threshold (one malaria-infected red blood cell for each 100 blood cells over ten examination fields), the person is diagnosed with malaria."
The procedure not only takes time, but also often leads to false counts due to human error or contamination.
"Laser spectroscopy technology," Zoueu says, "provides a better way for diagnosis." That's because the use of laser optical technology and image processing enables the count to take place in real-time and without the need for highly skilled personnel. "The lasers offer a spectral fingerprint of blood cells, providing a clear visual portrait of what is happening."
Zoueu and his colleagues aim at devising an affordable application that would allow any medical doctor throughout the country to do real-time blood tests for malaria without requiring patients and their families to undertake long journeys to a hospital. "The idea is to develop an optical sampling device – think of it as a sort of webcam – that can be attached to the eye-piece of a microscope", Zoueu explains. "The application would do the rest – that is, scan the images for the characteristic fingerprint of the malaria parasite."
Laser procedures could also be used to target certain molecules, and therefore hold promise for the design of innovative drugs to treat malaria and other diseases. "But to be effective," Zoueu notes, "such procedures require greater resolutions and precision", both of which are not yet available. In fact, such challenges serve as one of the focal points of research now being conducted by his laboratory.
The scientific capabilities of researchers in Côte d'Ivoire have come a long way over the past decade, Zoueu says. "When I first began my career in the mid 1990s, it was impossible for me to do research at home. Laboratory facilities simply did not exist. As a result, I would travel to Europe to conduct my laboratory work, and return to Africa to analyse the findings."
In contrast, today Zoueu's laboratory consists of four senior researchers, five PhD students and three Master's degree students, plus a number of technicians and administrative staff. Equipment purchased over the past three years with a research grant from TWAS include spectrometres, lasers, an optical microscope, a video camera and optical fibres.
"We owe a great deal to Trieste for the rapid progress we have made", he says. "As an ICTP Associate, I have been able to retain access to cutting-edge research in the field; as a member of the African Laser, Atomic, Molecular and Optical Sciences Network (LAM Network), which was launched and supported by ICTP, I have had the good fortune to meet and exchange ideas with Africa's growing number of laser researchers; and as a recipient of a TWAS research grant, I have been able purchase equipment that has allowed me and my colleagues to create our own laboratory at home." Zoueu is now using his expertise and contacts to coordinate the first African network dedicated to optical spectral imaging for applications in medicine, agriculture and the environment.
Yet, despite the progress that has been made, profound challenges remain. "Earlier this year, political conflict made travel unsafe, and required us to close the laboratory for more than a month," Zoue says. "We are now back at work, and more determined than ever to move ahead on our laser research agenda."
For Zoueu the roots of his commitment lie not just in his desire to build a successful career; but also in a deep personal interest to ensure that, in the future, children like his daughter receive the medical care that they need and deserve to lead healthy and happy lives.