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Dr Derick Osakunor is winner of 2021 Ker Memorial Prize

Derick Osakunor was awarded the prize for his work with Prof Francisca Mutapi on the treatment and control of Schistosomiasis in preschool aged children.

Derick Osakunor
Dr Derick Nii Mensah Osakunor.

Edinburgh Infectious Diseases is delighted to announce that the 2021 Ker Memorial Prize has been awarded to Dr Derick Nii Mensah Osakunor for his thesis on "Paediatric Schistosomiasis: Dynamics and Consequences". 

The Ker Prize is given annually to the student submitting the best PhD thesis addressing infectious diseases at the University of Edinburgh.  The prize winner receives a £500, and the opportunity to present their research at the Edinburgh Infectious Diseases annual symposium on Thursday 24 June.

Keeping Connected - 10th Annual Edinburgh Infectious Diseases Symposium

About the winner

Derick Osakunor conducts and leads research that is having significant impact on the policy, practice and control of infectious and neglected tropical diseases on a global scale.

His long-term goal is to contribute to health and well-being by influencing health policy and planning, and to demonstrate how research findings can be integrated into existing health systems to improve universal health care.

Derick began his career at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana, where he studied Medical Lab Science, and later received an MPhil in Chemical Pathology.  

On coming to Edinburgh he undertook his PhD in the School of Biological Science's Institute of Immunology and Infection Research, where he studied the infection dynamics and consequences of paediatric schistosomiasis. 

His work on schistosomiasis has informed the prioritisation and operationalised paediatric schistosome treatment in WHO guidelines for schistosomiasis elimination. He was honoured as a “Rising Star” scientist in 2019 by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

He currently works with the Children’s National Research Institute in Washington DC, developing improved diagnostics and early disease indicators for schistosomiasis, and investigating the targets/mechanisms of host pathology during schistosome infection.

Ker Memorial Prize:  Paediatric Schistosomiasis – Dynamics and Consequences

Millions of preschool-aged children (PSAC), 5 years old and below, in sub-Saharan Africa suffer from a neglected tropical disease caused by parasitic worms, schistosomiasis acquired upon contact with contaminated freshwater.  Left untreated, it can lead to anaemia, malnutrition, stunting, reduced learning ability and long-term effects on the organs, which can be fatal.

Schistosomiasis is preventable via access to safe water and toilets, and treatment is by administration of the drug Praziquantel. However, the disease continuous to pose a public health threat; schistosomiasis affects over 150 million children, including about 50 million PSAC.

While infection dynamics and disease are well described in older children and adults, less has been known about schistosomiasis in PSAC. Thus, treatment and control has focused on children over 5 years old, creating a health inequity.

Derick's PhD focused on a 3-year field study in Zimbabwe using a novel approach of following schistosome-naïve PSAC for 2 years, diagnosing infection and disease, and determining the early changes that occur in the body upon infection and treatment. The research provided the first scientific evidence of the rate of new schistosome infection and disease in PSAC, as well as the proportion of disease consequences attributable to schistosomiasis.

A major finding was that PSAC quickly develop clinical disease after first infection, but this could also be reversed within 3 months post-treatment. Regular screening to detect and treat first infections reduces the risk of infection and reinfection rates.  Derick demonstrated for the first time, that the first infection in PSAC impacted the body’s metabolism and the gut microbiome.  These findings gave some potential mechanistic explanations for disease progression, and on the link between schistosomiasis and malnutrition, stunting, and reduced physical and learning ability

The study also showed that PSAC could be reliably and regularly accessed for schistosome screening and treatment through health centres, as part of the early child health and growth monitoring programs already underway in African countries.

These results provide the health evidence for prioritising early diagnosis and treatment of schistosome infections in PSAC, and a strategy for implementing this. The work has also contributed to WHO recommendations for national schistosomiasis control programs, and guidelines for verification of schistosomiasis control, currently under development.

Ker Memorial Lecture

Stewart Cole
Professor Stewart Cole.

We are very pleased that the 2021 Ker Memorial Lecture will be given by Professor Stewart Cole, the President of the Institut Pasteur.

About the speaker

Stewart studied microbiology at the University of Wales in Cardiff prior to earning his PhD in molecular genetics from the University of Sheffield in 1979. Subsequently, he embarked on a career as a research scientist at the University of Umeå (Sweden) and the Max-Planck-Institut in Tübingen (Germany). 

In 1983 he joined the Institut Pasteur (Paris, France), where he rose to be the Scientific Director.  In 2007, he moved to the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne  where he led a world-class research unit dedicated to TB drug discovery, and served as the Director of the Global Health Institute. 

In 2018, Stewart rejoined the Institut Pasteur as its President.

Stewart Cole, Institut Pasteur

Ker Memorial Lecture:  Accelerating tuberculosis drug development

Despite the advent of Covid-19, tuberculosis (TB) obdurately remains the leading cause of death from a single infectious agent having claimed over a billion human lives in the past two centuries.  There are many similarities between the two airborne diseases and much can be learned about controlling Covid-19 from TB. 

In the last two decades, intensive efforts have been made by the public and private sectors to discover and develop new diagnostics and therapeutic or prophylactic agents for TB.  A promising drug treatment pipeline is now in place and I will describe how this was achieved and how Covid-19 can benefit therefrom.

The Ker Memorial Prizes

The Ker Prizes are very generously supported by Miss Aileen Ker, in memory of two outstanding Edinburgh physicians, her grandfather Dr. Claude Buchanan Ker, and his son (her father), Dr. Frank Leighton Ker.

The Ker family also support the presentation of the Ker Memorial Lecture, given by an eminent invited scientist in Infectious Diseases.

Dr. Claude Buchanan Ker (1867-1925) spent his professional medical career in Edinburgh, working ceaselessly to improving the treatment of infectious diseases.  He is best remembered for his tireless efforts to build the City Fever Hospital which opened in Colinton in 1903, and of which he was medical superintendent for 21 years.

Dr. Frank Leighton Ker (1907-1966), began his medical career in Edinburgh and went on to carry out his main work at the East Birmingham Hospital, where he became medical superintendent in 1950.

The glowing and heartfelt obituaries written for both these men, show the enormous regard and affection in which they were held, and to which the Ker Memorial Prize and Lecture now provide fitting testimony.

Related links

Institute of Immunology and Infection Research, School of Biological Sciences

Parasite Immunology Group - Mutapi lab