El Hadji Niang’s research
Dr El Hadji Niang wanted to be a scientist from a young age. His family were science-orientated, and his uncle was a science and maths teacher.
“I always did very well thanks to my uncle’s help with my homework,” jokes El Hadji. “I am very lucky though. Despite being the first-born and there being an expectation to start working as soon as possible, I always had my dad’s support to stay in education and follow a career in research.”
El Hadji studied a degree in Natural Sciences at the Cheikh Anta Diop University of Dakar in Senegal. Then, while looking for a summer placement, he found an opportunity in medical entomology – studying insects that have an impact on human health. This experience inspired El Hadji to go on to do his masters and PhD in the same topic.
“That’s where my passion for studying mosquitos harbouring malaria began.”
There has been progress in the war against malaria over the last 10 years – both the number of cases and the number of deaths caused by the disease have fallen substantially. But it’s still a huge health problem – the WHO estimates there are still 212 million cases of malaria in 2015 and 429 000 deaths. And around 9 out of 10 of these deaths are in Africa.
Both national and international organisations have developed programmes that work towards eliminating malaria.
But we are in Africa. Solutions need to be effective, but they also need to be practical and affordable.
The life-cycle of the malaria parasite includes two hosts – humans and mosquitoes. While treatments for people have helped, the most effective interventions have been controlling mosquito numbers and preventing them biting people and transmitting the parasite.
And this is where El Hadji’s research is focused. He researches the different species of mosquito, their distribution, behaviour and habitats, and resistance to insecticides.
“There are 21 different species of mosquito in Senegal, yet only 7 of these transmit malaria,” he says.
“We need to know more about them to target the malaria-carrying species more effectively. For example, if we don’t understand the susceptibility of different species to a given insecticide it might not work against malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Even worse, we might accidentally kill off species that don’t carry the disease and increase numbers of more dangerous species by reducing their competition.”
El Hadji works with others around the country to trap and examine mosquitoes, documenting the species and whether they are positive for the parasite.
“We use a variety of lab techniques to gather information about the mosquitoes, including looking at their genetic make-up.
“One of the questions we are interested in answering through these studies is how, at a genetic level, mosquitoes become resistant to various insecticides. If we knew this, maybe we could combine effective mosquito control tools to stop them surviving and becoming harder to kill.”
At the moment, El Hadji is carrying out research in Marseille investigating whether bacteria in the mosquitoes’ guts could disrupt the malaria parasite development in its insect host. If so, then infecting wild mosquitoes with certain bacteria could disrupt this process and break the life-cycle of malaria.
“I’m enjoying my research but I am applying for my own funding to become independent, which will allow me to return to Senegal and carry out my research there,” says El Hadji.
The biggest challenge facing El Hadji is the lack of funding opportunities.
“This means there’s lots of competition for grants in Africa. And when young scientists are competing with established researchers with lots more experience, it’s very hard to succeed in getting awards.”
El Hadji received a Research Development Fellowship award from AREF in 2015. He used his fellowship to spend time working with Dr David Weetman at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in the UK learning techniques in mapping the genome of mosquitoes.
The AREF Research Development Fellowship was a huge stepping stone for me. The most important way it helped was by developing connections to be able to form collaborations. It’s these collaborations that will help me apply for my own grants.
El Hadji is thankful for the opportunities he’s had in Senegal and wants to give back to the country now by helping the fight against malaria. His reasons are also personal, too.
“Many people die because of malaria. Children and pregnant women are particularly vulnerable, because their immune systems are weaker.
“I’ve had malaria myself, I’ve lost people I cared about to the disease. It’s a huge problem. Now I want to contribute and help to solve it.”