Schistosomiasis, also known as bilharzia and snail fever, is a disease caused by infection with parasitic bloodflukes (Schistosoma sp.). The disease is transmitted through contact with fresh-water bodies where parasites are released from host snails, which thrive in subtropical and tropical regions. In 2019, schistosomiasis affected more than 230 million people worldwide, with around 90% of those requiring treatment living on the African continent. The disease disproportionately burdens poor and rural communities which lack adequate access to safe water, sanitation and equitable health care.
In 2016, a Leiden-based research team led by Professor Meta Roestenberg initiated the first human challenge study with Schistosoma mansoni, whereby volunteers were intentionally exposed to the parasitic worm. Following the successful set-up of the study in Leiden, researchers from Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC) and Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI) have formed a strong partnership to set-up a similar schistosome human challenge study in Uganda, where the disease is a significant public health challenge.
The capacity and expertise to pioneer and conduct human challenge studies in a schistosomiasis endemic area will lead to advances in treatment and crucially, local vaccine evaluation. Young bright minds are needed to progress this ambition too. To pique curiosity and interest in doing cutting edge schistosome (and other parasitic worm) infection in human volunteers, we developed a seminar for MSc students from Makerere University.
In late October 2021, 50 first and second year students from the MSc Immunology and MSc Clinical Microbiology programmes joined us for a two-day seminar organized by Dr. Anna Kildemoes in liaison with Dr. Moses Egesa, through HIC-Vac pump-priming enhancement funding. The program was full of scientific presentations (from international early-career researchers to renowned professors), discussion sessions, and opportunity for networking with our speakers. The students were also given the chance to voice their own innovative ideas in a pitch presentation competition with a very attractive prize on offer.
Controlled human helminth infection studies – from current challenges to future innovation
On the first seminar day, we inspired the students with a wide range of current and ongoing work presented by an international line-up of early-career researchers. The talks stimulated questions and discussions including establishment of human challenge studies, state-of-the-art immunology, and diagnostics. Although classical science presentation and discussion is important, we really wanted to also give the students the chance to interact more fully with our speakers. In small break-out rooms, the students had the chance to network and get advice on anything they wanted, such as studying abroad, how to contact potential mentors, and what it takes to do a PhD.
The second day started with an excellent session given by LUMC Professor Cornelis H. Hokke on “Sweet or bitter: glycan-induced immune responses in helminth infections” followed by an equally excellent talk by Professor Meta Roestenberg on ”Controlled human infection models to accelerate vaccine development for parasitic diseases?”. These sessions facilitated discussion and questions from very basic research to clinical trial context and gave the students insights into collaborative research nested at LUMC. To give insights into collaborative research from Ugandan perspective too, we were immensely grateful to have Dr. Edridah Muheki Tukahebwa (Ugandan Ministry of Health, Principal Entomologist and a Senior Researcher at Vector Control Division) as our third keynote speaker. Dr. Tukahebwa shared her own career path, her vast experience with collaborative international research studies, and a comprehensive overview of current challenges for schistosomiasis and soil-transmitted helminth control and morbidity in Uganda. This unique opportunity to have access to and learn from their own senior public health official was greatly appreciated by the Makerere University MSc students. This was clearly reflected in the anonymous feedback given after the seminar.
“I think everything worked out well and bringing on board our own senior officials from MoH gives me a lot of hope that the research field we are venturing into is not in vain.”
“Incorporation of principle scientist from the Ministry of Heath to encourage students was something that is appreciated”
“I appreciate the effort to inspire us into recognising neglected disease”
“Pass my greetings to your funders and whoever made an effort to see to it that this conference takes place. It’s been a great learning experience for me and I'm looking forward to more of such opportunities.”
The art of the pitch presentation
Prior to the seminar we invited students to participate in a pitch presentation competition. Being able to pitch project ideas and win over an audience, whether for a job interview or in science, takes practise and courage. Stepping up and presenting live to an expert panel in a concise and clear manner can be daunting, especially the first time, so as incentive we had an amazing prize for the winner: 2021 ASTMH annual meeting attendance. This renowned international conference is a unique learning and networking event and an opportunity not often available to MSc level students.
We challenged students to present their own ideas for a human challenge study research question in 5 minutes/3 slides. The students had been given tips and tricks to prepare a good presentation and they were encouraged to consider these questions:
What is your helminth research question? Why is this an important question?
What is your hypothesis? Which experimental techniques would you use to investigate this?
How do you design your experiment? What do you hypothesize the results will be?
After tough deliberation the expert judge panel, consisting of Dr. Tukahebwa, Prof. Hokke and Prof. Roestenberg, decided on the overall winner and three close runner-ups. The four students, shown above, earned the opportunity to join this year’s online 2021 ASTMH annual meeting to learn, network and expand horizons.
“All presentations made were excellent and the students gave me the encouragement to do the same when I have the chance. Congratulations to my fellow students.”
Dr. Anna Kildemoes