His story: Kolapo Oyebola, Ph.D., was born in Nigeria, where half the cases of sickle cell disease worldwide can be found. This tragic fact has marked Oyebola’s life and career choices. Now as a researcher at the University of Lagos, he has made it his mission to help strengthen sickle cell disease research in his country.
Oyebola is one of ten African scientists in the inaugural class of the new African Postdoctoral Training Initiative (APTI), a fellowship program designed to build research capacity in African countries and develop ongoing scientific partnerships. The program is a collaboration between the NIH, the African Academy of Sciences, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
His experience with sickle cell disease: “I have had colleagues, friends, classmates affected by sickle cell disease,” Oyebola said. “Some were not fortunate enough to survive. Some didn’t even graduate with us. We never knew [they were sick] because back in Africa you try to hide the disease. We tend to learn about it after the person dies.” If those experiences were not devastating enough, a university colleague in his own department died last year because of the condition. “She had dreams,” Oyebola said. “Her research focus was on viruses. She was supposed to go to Germany with a fellowship, but she passed away before that. The disease – It is just there.”
His research: Oyebola is studying a condition called clonal hematopoiesis and how it can impact transplantation in sickle cell disease patients. Clonal hematopoiesis is an age-related condition marked by the accumulation of genetically abnormal blood cells. Besides increasing the risk of cancer, clonal hematopoiesis contributes to inflammation in atherosclerotic plaques, which is associated with the development of cardiovascular disease.
The connection to sickle cell disease? Some patients with the disease have symptoms that make them age quickly. These patients also have inflammation and related problems which promote clonal hematopoiesis, and “we are looking to study how clonal hematopoiesis impacts pathologies in these patients,” Oyebola said. Researchers already know that clonal hematopoiesis can affect stem cell transplantation for sickle cell disease patients. “If we could target some of these mutated cells before transplantation, we could predict if the treatment would work.”
His hope: “My dream is to be able to build a genetic platform to understand not only sickle cell disease, but other conditions—and understand them at a genetic level. It is about understanding better the development of cardiovascular disease, cardiomyopathies, and predicting the response to therapy in sickle cell disease patients,” Oyebola said.
To learn more about Oyebola’s research, see A fellow’s mission: Strengthen sickle cell research in Africa.