Shaping research to create social impact

Dr Siana Nkya is Lecturer at DUCE, University of Dar es Salaam and at Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences. She is a founding member of the social enterprise SEREN and was an AfOx Visiting Fellow in 2019.

How can I utilise my research to have a positive social impact?”
Siana Nkya, Lecturer, University of Dar es Salaam & Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences

This has been Siana’s guiding question since she decided to become a scientist at a young age. Siana always had a strong desire to become a medical doctor, however an alternative path of studying chemistry, molecular biology and human genetics has led her to develop solutions for some of Tanzania’s pressing health challenges.

Blood diseases are a major problem in sub-Saharan Africa which has a high incidence of both genetic conditions and blood cancers. While effective and affordable therapies are available in many African countries, a diagnostic test for conditions such as sickle cell disease can cost up to 400 USD and requires a highly skilled multidisciplinary staff and equipment and methodologies that cannot easily be maintained.

Siana was working as a laboratory manager for a newborn screening programme, Muhimbili University for Health and Allied Sciences (MUHAS) in Dar-es-Salaam with the aim of conducting an early screening for SCD in newborn babies in Tanzania. This was a programme led by Prof Julie Makani from MUHAS. During this time, she met Prof Anna Schuh, from the Molecular Diagnostics Centre, University of Oxford. All three scientists had one common goal; to save lives of newborn babies by ensuring easy and affordable access to blood diagnostic tests.

Together they formulated a plan to build local capacity for precise, low-cost, low-maintenance, patient-near DNA diagnostics solutions. To translate their idea into action, Siana applied for the AfOx Visiting Fellowship in 2019. This enabled her to visit Oxford and work in collaboration with Anna and other colleagues at Oxford’s Department of Oncology and the Molecular Diagnostics Centre.

The AfOx Fellowship had a dual benefit. Not only did it give me access to resources and equipment that were then lacking at my home lab, but it also made me think of the social aspect of the diagnostic test. For the first time in my career as a scientist, I was thinking, how can we create
an innovation that will actually work in the community?”
Siana Nkya

This question led Siana and her colleagues at the Muhimbili University for Health and Allied Sciences and Anna to co-found SEREN. SEREN is a social enterprise that delivers affordable and accessible diagnostic tests to patients. They have employed 12  members of staff and provided good clinical and laboratory practice training for laboratory technicians, senior scientists/bioinformaticians, nurses and clinicians. 

In close collaboration with MUHAS, University of Oxford, the Muhimbili National Hospital and the patient charity Tumaina la Maisha, they have put in place the required infrastructure to facilitate national patient referrals, local sequencing, joint cloud-based data analysis and clinical data collection for the WHO Cancer Registry.

Siana and colleagues have put in place frameworks to consent parents/patients for DNA analysis and to provide diagnostic-grade DNA testing for as low as $10/test. As of March 2021, 50 children and young adults have undergone testing, and Muhumbili National Hospital has already adopted one of the tests to provide government funded diagnosis of chronic myeloid leukaemia.

In 2020, SEREN won the University of Oxford’s Vice-Chancellor’s Innovation Award. Siana and the teams at Oxford and MUHAS are now in the process of securing additional funding for SEREN and are in discussions with representatives from the Ministry of Health and other stakeholders to secure sustainability for genetic diagnostics that will save the lives of thousands of children and young adults in the region.

From day one we had a very clear goal. Although our project was starting in Oxford, it had to be fit for purpose in Tanzania.”
Siana Nkya

Watch our Fireside Innovation chat with Siana where she talks about her journey and her research.