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Far, But Not Away

December 20, 2022

Khumoekae Richard, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow in the HIV lab of Dr. Luis Montaner. Dr. Richard’s early and deep interest in plants and their derivatives as medicines has taken him on a scientific journey from Botswana to Canada to Philadelphia. With clues from his Botswana culture, where various plant-based ethnomedicines are used as part of a patient’s primary healthcare, he follows the scientific complexity of documenting and investigating plant-based compounds with the hope to create future drugs. By harnessing the potential of plant-based ethnomedicines for health, wellness, and health care, he hopes to discover novel antivirals and HIV-1 latency-reversing agents (LRAs). This is his journey.

Did you come from a family of scientists?

I do not come from a family of scientists but am a product of humble beginnings in Botswana, Africa. I give credit to my mother for raising me well and ensuring that I take education very seriously even though she never had the opportunity to learn science herself. When you grow up and go through basic education, you fall in love with some subjects at school. For me, I fell in love with science – biology in particular – and it became my dream. I had good grades in secondary school, which earned me admission to the University of Botswana where I studied Biological Sciences.

Growing up, I curiously watched how my relatives prepared medicinal plants as treatments for a variety of family member health conditions. I wanted to know all the medicinal properties of those plants and wondered: What compounds and active ingredients do they contain? I realized science would provide me with answers and that’s how I also became a scientist.

What has been your scientific journey thus far?

I graduated with Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences at the University of Botswana. I applied for scholarships to further my education and was awarded the competitive Queen Elizabeth II (QE2) Diamond Jubilee scholarship in 2016. I left Botswana for Simon Frasier University in Canada to pursue a master’s degree in Health Sciences. With my supervisor Dr. Ian Tietjen, I developed assays to test bioactivities and antiviral properties of medicinal plants. I would later pursue a doctorate in Health Sciences, having been awarded the Sub-Saharan African Network for TB/HIV Research Excellence (SANTHE) Ph.D. fellowship.

Dr. Tietjen later moved to the U.S. and joined The Wistar Institute. With scholarship in hand, I returned home to Botswana to do community-based fieldwork. My thesis project focused on documentation, screening and characterization of novel chemical compounds derived from natural sources, including traditional medicines that can modulate latent HIV infection and the biological mechanisms associated with their HIV latency.

I worked with Traditional Health Practitioners (THPs) to explore the extent to which traditional and complimentary medicine is used for HIV/AIDS management by the Setswana and Kalanga peoples of Tutume, a subdistrict of Botswana. My intention was to later assess the anti-HIV properties of these regional medicinal plants and provide laboratory-based support to document and characterize the bioactivities and biological mechanisms associated with these medicinal plants.

The project required a different and important set of skills—the ability to build trust with others because this research involves intellectual property and indigenous knowledge rights. It is a project that uniquely combines community-based and laboratory approaches—two sets of disciplines that aren’t usually viewed from the same lens. I joined Wistar immediately after defending my thesis.

Tell me about your time at Wistar working in Dr. Luis Montaner’s HIV research lab.

In July 2022, I joined Dr. Montaner’s laboratory as a visiting scientist. It is exciting to be a part of this Wistar lab, with an impeccable track record in HIV research. Dr. Montaner’s laboratory focuses on HIV-1 latency, and I am investigating how we can reactivate this virus (that ‘hides’ in the body) to be better targeted by anti-HIV drugs. Part of my work is to develop assays that can measure the efficacies of these cure strategies. We hope to develop several combinations and HIV immunotherapeutic interventions.

Interestingly, this assay will also allow us to measure the efficacies of the Botswana medicinal plants used by THPs to manage HIV. This will allow me to give THPs feedback on whether their plants are or are not active against HIV.

How do you blend learning and culture and contribute to making global health inclusive across cultures?

Working toward my doctorate, I was ‘baptized’ into ways of study known as interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary. These concepts provide space for innovative approaches in solving global health problems. Taken together, these concepts have helped me to appreciate that our medical advice and opinions matter less to a patient. A patient can ‘switch and shop’ between several modes of primary health care— some of them cultural, including consulting THPs, and others based in science, including enrolling in antiretroviral therapy. This understanding allows me to be open-minded and helps me understand the patient and their blended needs of science and culture. I aim to get the best out of the two to help humanity.

A biomedical scientist must be pragmatic to be inventive when using laboratory skills to investigate medicinal plants that patients used in traditional systems and for evidence-based, data-driven primary health care systems across the world.

At the center of biomedical research should be the patient: How do we help a person living with HIV have a better health outcome? Through this project, I give back to the community by characterizing medicinal plants to provide laboratory data-based advice. Moreover, we might just get novel compounds from those medicinal plants that leads to future anti-HIV drugs.

What’s next for you?

Next is learning as many laboratory techniques as possible at Wistar, which will be useful in my journey as a scientist. I want to add scientific value to Dr. Montaner’s lab. I will be visiting Botswana soon to meet THPs and continue building trust and giving feedback on the progress of the projects — they are truly a lovely group of people to work with!

What do you most enjoy about what you do?

I enjoy connecting science to people, even in rural areas of Botswana. It is rewarding that I too am generating knowledge. The world is moving towards a knowledge-based economy and through interdisciplinary research, I am part of that transition. I want to contribute to the body of knowledge in the hope it impacts today’s and tomorrow’s generations in different scientific and cultural settings. Interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research is an answer to many global health problems and should be embraced. Wistar, with its diversity, equity, and inclusivity, gives me with the opportunity to grow and become a scientist who will make an impact and difference.

Any advice for those interested in biomedical research?

The more you conduct research, the more you realize what you do not know. I remain a student for life who doesn’t know everything but is willing to learn. In the quest for knowledge, we should work together and collaborate because individual brilliance cannot surpass collective brilliance. Always collaborate, for we are not all knowing. This is a message to all.