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Coordination/Synthetic Chemist Returns to Cameroon Ready to Train Next Generation of African Scientists on Wistar’s World-Class Analytic Chemistry Techniques

May 16, 2023

“Our hope is to build a center with the same reflection of Wistar in science and administration.”

In three short months as a Visiting Scholar with The Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, Donatus Bekindaka Eni, BSc., MSc., Ph.D., a lecturer from the University of Buea in the South West Region of Cameroon, experienced a number of career and life-changing firsts. Despite having earned progressive degrees in Biochemistry, Chemistry and then Inorganic Chemistry, it was in a Wistar lab where he first experienced the liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS) and Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) analytic chemistry instruments. He also witnessed at Wistar the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (ELISA) protocol in action. Finally, and perhaps most-eye opening, for the first time in his life, this scientist from tropical Central Africa opened his curtains to a landscape dusted in snow.

A lecturer and published author, Dr. Bekindaka Eni is the third academic from the University of Buea to travel to Wistar as part of a multi-year collaboration between the two research institutions. Wistar is collaborating with the University in the development of Center for Drug Discovery (UB-CeDD) through the Calestous Juma Science Leadership Fellowship awarded to Fidele Ntie-Kang (grant award number: INV-036848 to University of Buea) where scientists study medicinal plants, natural product compounds, and locally synthesized chemical compounds to treat infectious diseases impacting the Sub-Saharan continent, especially on SARS_CoV-2 and HIV.

Dr. Ntie-Kang, who heads the University research center, briefly visited Philadelphia last fall, while University Ph.D. student Chantal Emade Nkwelle spent last September to February for immersive training in many of Wistar’s laboratory techniques. Last fall, Wistar’s Dr. Ian Tietjen, Research Assistant Professor in the Montaner Lab, traveled to Cameroon to help create a strategy that would best apply Wistar’s resources to the University’s needs to expand antiviral and drug discovery abilities.

Now, upon his return to Cameroon, Dr. Bekindaka Eni will train University of Buea scientists and students on the analytical techniques he learned first-hand during his time learning alongside Wistar colleagues.

“We finally have the facilities in Cameroon, and now our hope is to build a center with the same reflection of Wistar in science and administration,” Dr. Bekindaka Eni says. “It may take several years to catch up. After all, Wistar is quite an old institution! The University of Buea shall gain so much from this visit.”

Scientific valorization of traditional knowledge

UB-CeDD will be among the first on the African continent to use computer-aided methods to learn more about herbal compounds passed down through generations by traditional healers. By determining the chemical pharmacophores responsible for the antiviral or antibacterial activity of medicinal plants, scientists can identify the particular isolate in each that is responsible for their healing qualities, predict chemical toxicity, and discover how they function to treat illnesses, such as HIV or SARS-CoV-2, that disproportionately afflict African nations.

“These spiritual doctors have told us what a plant can cure. Now, our research will help us better understand what the different products in that plant consist of, and how they function to cure a particular illness; that is, valorization of traditional knowledge,” Dr. Bekindaka Eni says.

“Scientific valorization of traditional knowledge will be key to helping our people live in good health.”

Superb science

While at Wistar, Dr. Bekindaka Eni spent every possible moment in Wistar’s synthetic labs, especially appreciating the opportunity to monitor reactions using LC-MAs. This analytical chemistry technique combines the physical separation capabilities of liquid chromatography with the mass analysis capabilities of mass spectrometry. In Cameroon, scientists currently use less powerful thin-layer chromatography (TLC) plates to monitor the progress of a reaction or ascertain the effectiveness of purification.

“LC-MS is are one of the things that really captured me,” he said. “I was taught in my B.Sc. and we applied it in both M.Sc. and Ph.D. program on the principle of LC-MS and how it works, but I’d never seen it. At Wistar, I not only got to see it, I used it. It was quite exciting!”

Other highlights of his time with Wistar were the idea exchanges from weekly lab meetings run by Luis J. Montaner, D.V.M., D.Phil., and Joseph Salvino, Ph.D., and time spent in Wistar’s Molecular Screening & Protein Expression Facility managed by Joel Cassel. It was there that Dr. Bekindaka Eni became skilled at using the ELISA protocol, an important diagnostic tool in plant and medicine pathology. The protocol detects the presence of antigens in biological samples and is commonly used to test for antibodies indicating HIV or SARS-CoV-2 infection – a skill he is now eager to pass on to students at the University of Buea.

“The science level at Wistar is superb,” he notes.

Dr. Bekindaka Eni acknowledges that the underlying medicinal synthetic approach for organic synthesis is the same for scientists at both ends of the Wistar/University of Buea exchange, with one great advantage in the States being the use of high-tech equipment.

“In Wistar labs, scientists purify compounds by the use of Biotage®. In Cameroon, we do it manually,” he says. “Other than equipment, however, I was very happy to understand that what we do down there is not too different from what is done at Wistar.”

Regardless of method, the goal in organically synthesizing these products is also the same in either nation, which makes this intercontinental collaboration especially meaningful.

“At Wistar or in Cameroon, we’re all doing this work to save lives.”