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CIHR awards Dalhousie researcher for work in metabolic interventions to prevent neonatal sepsis

Posted by Kate Rogers on December 6, 2023 in News

Each year, nearly three million newborns are diagnosed with sepsis, a severe response to infection in the bloodstream.

Nineteen percent of those babies never recover.

Neonatal sepsis is a critical issue globally, especially in low-resourced populations worldwide, where a considerable number of deaths occur within the first four weeks of life.

But what if we could prevent millions of those deaths, simply by linking feeding practices with vaccinations?

That is exactly what Dr. Nelly Amenyogbe, a research fellow in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Dalhousie, is trying to do. She is a recent recipient of the Canadian Institute of Health Research’s (CIHR) Research Excellence, Diversity, and Independence (REDI) Early Career Transition Award.

The REDI award supports post-doctoral researchers, clinicians, and research associates from underrepresented groups in launching their research faculty careers in Canada. The program focuses on addressing the impact of racism and gender inequality on early career researchers.

Racialized women and individuals from equity-deserving backgrounds are significantly underrepresented in science and medical faculties in Canada, despite the country’s overall diversity. The REDI award aims to change that.

“I think we have enough evidence that the more diverse backgrounds and opinions you have in leadership positions, the faster we're advancing together,” says Dr. Amenyogbe. “I've had the opportunity to collaborate with so many diverse groups around the world, and as you get to know people abroad, you start to realize we're not so different.”

From learner to leader

Dr. Amenyogbe, who began her fellowship at Dalhousie on September 1, is working under infectious disease specialist, Dr. Scott Halperin, whom she met while presenting her graduate research in 2014 at the Canadian Immunization Conference in Ottawa.

“She was an enthusiastic young scientist who demonstrated great potential,” Dr. Halperin recalls of that meeting. “Her arrival in Halifax is a wonderful opportunity for Dalhousie and I am excited to participate in this stage of her career.”

The REDI award, the first of its kind for CIHR, provides recipients with funding during two phases of their career. The first, lasting two to three years, is the postdoctoral stage. Awardees are expected to transition to an independent research faculty position during phase two, or within two to three years of the funding start date.

“The CIHR REDI award will permit Nelly to transition smoothly and effectively into an independent faculty position and I am happy that I can play a part in that process,” says Dr. Halperin. “The global perspective and enthusiasm that she brings to her work will motivate everyone around her. I expect great things from her at Dalhousie.”

Combatting childhood disease

Dr. Amenyogbe, who is of African heritage, became intrigued in a career in research and vaccinology at a young age, and in a way that she describes as, ‘as cheesy as it sounds.’

“I watched Outbreak. It was this Dustin Hoffman movie,” she recalls. “That was the first time I really became aware of the concept of microbial pathogenesis, and from then on, I was Googling how viruses worked and this microbial world became something of a big, big interest to me.”

During her Bachelor of Science in Microbiology and Immunology at UBC, she was stunned to learn that half of all childhood deaths occurred within the first month of life, with neonatal sepsis a leading cause.

Inspired to combat childhood microbial diseases, she explored the impact of BCG (Bacille Calmette-Guerin) vaccination on newborns' survival against tuberculosis (TB). This exploration led to extensive graduate research on nonspecific vaccine effects, referring to the positive impacts that the vaccine can have on our overall immune system, beyond just protecting against the specific disease it was designed for. This means vaccines not only help guard against a particular illness but also enhance the body's general ability to fight off various infections.

Dr. Amenyogbe was further motivated to explore the idea of immune resilience, and why microbes can cause disease in some people and not others.

“What are those mechanisms of immune resilience, and can we use them to help prevent severe disease, rather than finding different ways to treat or interfere with what the microbe is trying to do?”

And that is exactly where her research currently sits.

Fueling survival

Her current project, “Fuel for Survival: Metabolic interventions to prevent neonatal sepsis,” will explore how breastfeeding may influence vaccine effectiveness in infants, particularly focusing on the BCG vaccine and its varying efficacy. The study aims to address uncertainties surrounding newborn immunity and the role of breastfeeding in this context.

“It's the first time that these two important variables have been looked at together,” says Dr. Amenyogbe. “In this field, looking at breastfeeding isn't completely new, but looking at it in a very specific way with respect to colostrum (a nutrient-rich first milk produced by mothers) and with respect to immune boosters like BCG, is something that's not been done.”

Dr. Amenyogbe is fortunate to work with an outstanding community of scientific role models, each of whom has contributed, and is still contributing, to her success.

“From my early mentors, Drs. Francis Amara (University of Manitoba) and Tobias Kollman (Dalhousie), to my REDI mentors, Drs. Noni MacDonald (Dalhousie), Eleanor Fish (University of Toronto), and Meghan Azad (University of Manitoba), in addition to Dr. Halperin—these outstanding individuals exemplify excellence in science and global outreach.”

Recognizing potential

The REDI award is putting emerging researchers, like Dr. Amenyogbe, on track to be leaders in their fields, something she says, is not easy to do.

“It's not just having the right credentials on paper. There are a lot of other steps involved to be recognized and supported, especially when you're raising two young kids. It’s widely acknowledged that there is a glass ceiling. I think this award is built to recognize people that have clearly demonstrated great potential to be a good quality leader.”

Dr. Amenyogbe understands the incredible effort required for the translation of this work, but if it will result in better health equity, knows she has a great starting point.

“This work aligns well with my internal morals and it's scientifically a hard puzzle to solve, which also makes it stimulating.”  

“That, I think, is a great way to spend a career.”