GAME CHANGER

Scientist who believes that a once in a year ARV is real

The revolutionary process will eventually replace the gruelling daily drug taking routine, and lead to better adherence.

In Summary

• Prof Edagwa and his team first introduced this invention – called the Long-acting slow effective release antiretroviral therapy (Laser Art) – to the world in November 2017.

• He holds 11 inventions, patented in the United States, including three in the last year.

Benson Edagwa is an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Centre.
Benson Edagwa is an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Centre.
Image: DOUGLAS OKIDDY

Kenyan scientist Prof Benson Edagwa has added another feather to his cap.

Prof Edagwa was recently named the 2019 emerging inventor of the year by the University of Nebraska Medical Center, where he works.

This was one of the two top honours the university gave to innovators this year.

Prof Edagwa recently invented a game-changing technique that would allow people living with HIV to take ARVs only once in six months or once a year.

The revolutionary process will eventually replace the gruelling daily drug taking routine, and lead to better adherence.

Prof Edagwa and his team first introduced this invention – called the Long-acting slow effective release antiretroviral therapy (Laser Art) – to the world in November 2017.

More recently, Laser Art was combined with a gene-editing technology to eliminate HIV in mice, proving that it is possible to cure HIV.

Prof Edagwa and a team of researchers described the latest results in Nature Communications Journal in July this year, announcing they had successfully eliminated HIV from humanised mice.

“The system works and improvements to our technologies demonstrating an increase in laboratory animal cure rates will be published in the coming months. New collaborations with the Clinton Health Access Initiative have been started to accelerate the translation of these technologies. We are in the early stages in all of these but we will get to the finish line,” he told the Star last week.

Prof Edagwa grew up in Isitsi village, Sabatia constituency in Vihiga and was a day scholar at Mbale High School, sitting his KCSE in 1999.

 

He now holds 11 inventions, patented in the United States, including three in the last year.

“He is also a listed inventor on 11 pending patent applications,” the University of Nebraska Medical Center said when awarding him.

Laser Art works by unlocking storage areas in body cells where drugs can stay for extended periods, including months, while eliminating most HIV from the body.

Currently, patients have to take daily pills, which is difficult for some. Laser Art can also be used to deliver the Pre-exposure prophylaxis drugs that prevent HIV infection.

Prof Edagwa says Laser Art can reach body tissues that have previously been inaccessible to conventional drugs, such as tissue sanctuaries where the virus has remained hidden.

“Such efforts will bring the medicines to reservoir sites and accelerate viral clearance,” he says.

The University of Nebraska says the process could have a dramatic impact on the estimated 34.2 million people on the planet who are affected by HIV.

Kenya has about 1.5 million people living with HIV and about one million of them take anti-retroviral pills every day.

“Laser Art shows great promise as a treatment that could be given to HIV patients once every six months or even just once a year,” the university of Nebraska said while conferring the award late October.

Edagwa says medicines used to treat all other chronic conditions like TB and leukaemia can also be modified using Laser Art technology to linger in the body longer, eliminating the need for daily doses.

“One of our research goals is to translate existing antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) into long-acting compounds,” Edagwa says.

To completely eliminate HIV in mice as described in July, Edagwa and his team first put them on drugs modified with Laser Art, for weeks.

Current ARVs cannot eliminate the virus entirely but they suppress its replication. This is because the drugs cannot reach viral reservoirs, such as the lymph nodes and the central nervous system, where HIV hides.

But if they are modified with Laser Art, they can overcome this obstacle, and reach those reservoirs.

Edagwa’s team modified the ARVs to reach the spleen, bone marrow and brain, where HIV might be hiding.

After several weeks, they used the gene-editing tool (Crispr) to cut out the DNA fragments where HIV was still clinging.

“The Crispr solution is given as an injection into a vein,” he told the Star. “Laser Art helps the Crispr to identify the proviral sections of the DNA and cut it out, meaning the virus has nowhere to attach.”

Five weeks after a single injection of the Crispr-Cas9 treatment and eight weeks after the last Laser Art administration, HIV could not be detected in blood and all body organs using sensitive detection tools.

However, although proof of concept has been established, this treatment is years away.

“We have to establish several things because we’d need to come up with something universal. We would also need tests on people, and all these take long,” he told the Star in July.

Prof Edagwa did not always want to be a scientist. He wanted to study law after his KCSE in 1999.

“But my mother said most attorneys are not very honest, so I decided to study science,” he says.

His mother Eunice was then a schoolteacher at Elongo Primary in Vihiga.

“My father also discouraged me from applying to the University of Nairobi. He thought I would not graduate in time, and that’s how I was admitted to Moi University’s Chepkoilel Campus (now the University of Eldoret) for a BSc in Chemistry,” he said in July.

Edagwa completed his undergraduate studies at Moi University in 2005 and, being among the top performers, was allowed to enrol into a master's programme four months prior to graduation.

“Dr Samuel Lutta, encouraged me to apply for a PhD programme that could expose me to cutting edge research projects, and that is how I ended up at Louisiana State University,” he says.

He completed his PhD in 2012 at the Louisiana State University, which still has fond memory of him.

“Benson does not have any regrets about his career to-date and describes being at LSU as a very fruitful experience,” LSU says on its website.

Later, in July 2012, he accepted a position at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, where he still works, mostly supervising PhD students, usually medical doctors and pharmacologists.

Edagwa is also the lead medicinal and formulation chemist on efforts to make better treatments against HIV and other chronic infections at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

He says working in a laboratory entails taking long shifts that extend late into the night, but his wife, Dr Teresa Mutahi, understands and is extremely supportive. She lectures at the University of Florida, and the couple has two boys aged seven and four years.

Edagwa still wishes to return home and build research capacity in Kenya. He wishes the government would pour more resources into research.

“We have many people here doing interesting research and we can work together. With more investments also, our youths will get jobs,” he told the Star in July.

“I get a lot of emails from students and many are very smart, but not everyone gets an opportunity to go abroad, so we need to build capacity here.”

He advises Kenyan scientists to engage lawyers to protect their ideas.

“They can also reach out, we can collaborate with them. Many times people think if you’re not a foreigner then you’re not good enough, but this is a bad way of thinking,” he says.

Whenever he visits Kenya, Edagwa always gives talks to secondary school students, particularly in day schools.

“I was a day scholar at Mbale. I was not considered an A-student, so I understand them,” he says.

“Everyone is smart. Everyone has something to give to the society. If you can’t discover your talents, align with people that may help you discover them.”

(O.O)