Prossy Namuwulya has worked with the Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI) as a Molecular Biologist for close to 15 years. She is a PhD student at Makerere University working on understanding the genetics of the measles virus. Her PhD is sponsored by the Centre for Virus Research – University of Glasgow, Scotland. She is also interested in profiling the viruses that are associated with measles-like illnesses (individuals that presented with classical measles, clinical symptoms but the laboratory test was negative for measles specific IgM antibodies) in the Ugandan population.
Following enrollment for her PhD, Prossy joined the Makerere University/UVRI Center of Excellence in Infection and Immunity programme (MUII- Plus) as an honorary fellow, mainly to benefit from the programme’s mentorship initiative.
Prossy started her research career at Med Biotech Laboratories as a research associate in 1999 during her high school vacation prior to joining Makerere University for her first degree in Biochemistry, where she graduated with an upper second class honors degree in in January 2003. In February 2013, Prossy completed her Masters’ degree in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology from the same university. For Prossy, a career in research has been an exciting journey acquiring new skills and meeting different people over the years.
“I have acquired knowledge on different diseases like malaria, measles, rubella and polio from both literature and senior colleagues. My research mentorship began with Dr. Thomas Egwang and Dr. Brenda Okech among others while at Med Biotech laboratories, a renown malaria research organization at the time,” noted Prossy.
Dr Egwang currently owns a malaria research laboratory in Apac district in Northern Uganda, while Dr. Brenda Okech is the Director of UVRI/ IAVI HIV Vaccine programme, based at the UVRI Entebbe campus.
Why should people care about your research?
Having worked with the measles regional reference laboratory at UVRI since 2006, the data generated indicated that over 60% of individuals that present with typical measles clinical symptoms; maculopapular rash; a mixture of both flat discolored area of the skin, and small raised bumps, high fever , and either cough, red eyes or running nose, turned out to be measles specific IgM negative, meaning that they had not had a recent infection. “In addition, 15 % of the cases that turned out to be measles IgM positive showing that they had a recent infection, had documented evidence of measles vaccination history. This was of great concern to me and I felt it needed further research,” said Prossy.
This research is of interest, because it will generate additional information that will contribute to understanding the genetic changes that may have occurred in the measles virus circulating in Uganda through measles full genome sequencing. This research will also develop new diagnostic tests for the other viruses that manifest with measles like symptoms, modification of the vaccine policy and also inform the community and health workers about the relevance of understanding the measles virus genetics in relation to the measles disease.
What are the big challenges in your research area?
My area of research is a relatively new in Uganda and therefore requires a lot of training in bio informatics or travel which has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic globally.” Prossy noted. In addition, full genome measles sequencing and the identification of other viruses that cause measles -like illnesses requires experts in sequencing. Unfortunately, the available resources are currently deployed to support COVID-19 sequencing, leaving a gap for diseases like measles.
How will this research help you achieve your long-term career plans?
There will be discovery of new assays and control of new viral infections as a result of real time detection. Prossy is also hopeful that this research will help her achieve her long-term career plans to become an expert in the viruses that cause measles-like illnesses; these are illnesses that resembled the measles disease but were actually not measles according to the initial laboratory test. These will be identified by the advanced metagenomics next generation sequencing, which is ongoing as part of the PhD. as well as the measles virus itself. This means that other than understanding the other viruses that cause MLI through advanced techniques like metagenomics, Prossy will also further understand the genetics of the measles virus by sequencing its full genome and characterizing it.
The new knowledge that she will acquire during her PhD will enable her identify both existing and reemerging viruses hence adding an expert into the virus discovery global network. The knowledge she will acquire over her PhD study period will enable Prossy to publish her research findings and hence adding to the other body of knowledge in the virology field since research is about adding onto what others researched and left a gap. Advancing her as a measles consultant/ expert after this.
“Considering the number of people I have met during my research, I am on my way to establishing a broader scientific and professional network to carry on with the research journey even after my PhD.” Said Prossy.
What are some of the findings you are seeing from your research?
Having read a number of scientific articles in the field of measles and measles-like illnesses, Prossy has learnt more about the measles’ genetics. She is also aware that there are many viruses, both emerging and re-emerging that need to be on top of her area by reading recent publications and collaborating with her peers or other scientists carrying out related research work.
The discovery of various bio-informatics packages used to analyze metagenomic data, has also been a highlight that has equipped her with additional knowledge on her PhD journey.
What are some of the outputs of your research and of what benefit is it to your stakeholders?
From our observation of vaccinated individuals, this work may provide more evidence for policy makers that individuals who have not been fully vaccinated are not protected. This may influence policy action regarding resource allocation and enforcement to ensure that individuals are fully vaccinated. It will be important to inform the health workers about the genetic changes that have occurred in the measles virus over the years at a later time, with substantial data from other researchers, as a lead to re-designing a 60-year-old measles vaccine.
Unfortunately, not enough data has been collected so far, therefore the findings have not been shared yet.