By Racheal Ninsiima
KAMPALA — Today is thee international day of Immunology, a day dedicated to increasing global awareness of the importance of immunology in the fight against infection. As we commemorate this day, we take a look at Makerere University’s Immunology laboratory that is renown for developing rapid diagnostic kits for diseases such as Ebola and now COVID-19. The COVID pandemic has reinforced what a powerful tool for public health testing kits really are. To borrow an old business phrase, if you’re not measuring it, you’re not managing it.
Remarkably, more than a year since the pandemic was declared, scientists in Uganda have developed testing kits that are being used countrywide. Most of this innovative work has been made possible because of Makerere University’s state-of-the-art immunology research laboratory. We spoke to Dr Rose Nabatanzi, the lab’s manager, about the research work taking place there.
Dr Nabatanzi is an accomplished biomedical researcher with a keen interest in HIV, infectious diseases, international and humanitarian medicine and Public Health. She earned her PhD in Immunology in 2020 and her doctoral research examined innate immune system recovery after long-term Antiretroviral therapy in an African population.
In this interview, she tackled various aspects of the lab she is managing from teaching to innovations that are being developed.
When was the immunology laboratory established and what services does it offer?
This lab was established in 2008 and is a biosafety level II lab that is equipped with modern equipment such as tissue culture incubators, Flow cytometers, liquid nitrogen freezers, Luminescent Fluorescent machines, ELISA readers and table-top centrifuges which aid scientists as they conduct their research. We work with faculty all over the region in conducting research. Additionally, the laboratory is a teaching facility, offering lessons to undergraduate, graduate, doctoral and post-doctoral students. Since its inception, the lab has trained over 5000 students.
We also offer testing services for SARS-CoV-2, HIV, Hepatitis B, latent TB, syphilis and Herpes Simplex. We conduct interferon gamma release assays which are whole blood tests that aid in diagnosing mycobacterium tuberculosis.
How has the COVID pandemic altered the lab’s work and how did you adopt to this change?
The pandemic has impacted our work in many ways. One way it did so was during the lockdown. Many of the studies that were being conducted were halted as research on COVID was prioritized. For example, a study on Herpes Simplex virus in women had to be halted because the researchers could not access the facilities and the patients for recruitment.
Furthermore, with the pandemic, we delved into the development of rapid antigen and antibody COVID-19 diagnostic tests. The antibody test, developed by an eight-member team led by Dr Misaki Wayengera, was officially launched on March 17 2021. The antigen test is still being developed. Uganda has been conducting Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) diagnostic tests, which require laboratories, reagents and experts, limiting COVID-19 testing mostly to urban areas. However, the antibody test is easy to use and provides results in 15–30 minutes, enabling countries to decentralize testing. By providing results quickly, this new test will empower frontline health workers to better manage cases by isolating patients to prevent further spread and to begin treatment immediately. But it is critical to note that Antibody detection tests do not replace PCR but complement them.
What sets the immunology lab apart from the others that are also conducting COVID tests?
The lab is well equipped to conduct these tests with qualified personnel. The least qualified staff having a post graduate degree and two resident immunologists i.e., myself and Dr Sande Obondo.
How do you ensure that your lab is always producing quality, accurate results?
In order to keep producing quality results, all our staff are trained in Good Clinical Practice (GCP); Good Clinical Laboratory Practice (GCLP) and human rights protection and hence maintain professionalism in their work. Additionally, we undergo external quality assurance by expert panels from the UK Neqas. Therefore, we do international comparison for all our tests. Moreover, we maintain annual service contracts for all our equipment.
How do you maintain the lab’s multiple records?
We have a dedicated data management team and focal persons for every study happening in the lab. Furthermore, every study has its own file of records kept in the lab and samples are stored in the freezers.
What are some of the things you do to prevent contamination and maintain safety within the lab?
I ensure that all staff wear protective gear such as gloves, chemical-resistant aprons and eye protective equipment as they go about their work. We also decontaminate work surfaces with Jik and ethanol before and after work.