Medical Innovations for Developing Nations

Press Talk chaired by Alaina Levine with Nobel Laureate Peter Agre and young scientists. Photo/Credit: Julia Nimke/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

 

I had the occasion this week at #LINO18 to moderate a panel specifically for journalists in attendance. The focus of the press talk was on medical innovations for developing nations, and featured an all-star team of one Nobel Laureate, Peter Agre, and three young scientists. It was a fascinating experience, as not only did it provide insight about the critical issues surrounding medical innovations in the developing world, but it also helped the journalists better understand the issues and tactics for reporting on this important subject.

As a freelance science journalist, I had two reasons I wanted to be involved in this panel. One was that I wanted to share with my fellow journalists strategies for writing on and sharing stories associated with medical innovations in the developing world – more on this below. The other reason was that I was eager to share with the audience different ideas about projects that are taking place in multiple nations. There is no one way to “do” medical innovation, nor is there a “one size fits all” mechanism to deliver medical innovation solutions. Diversity reigns. Whether it is the type of medical research and invention being developed and tested, how it is actually delivered to benefit humanity, how communities are involved, or the country in which the solution is being deployed, each project and each community it touches are absolutely unique. Every project has to be customised for that locale, and where one intervention may be perfectly suited for community X in this corner of the world, the same type of solution may not be able to be delivered in the same way in another corner.

Young scientist Jeerapond Leelawattanachai at the 68th Lindau Meeting. Photo/Credit: Julia Nimke/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Between the current Nobel Laureate and the future Nobel Laureates (!!) on the panel, I think we, as journalists and those stakeholders in science communications, were not disappointed in hearing stories relating to the above. Peter Agre, who received his Nobel Prize in 2003 for aquaporins, the water channels in cells, has since devoted his life to channelling his energy towards combatting infectious diseases typically in Africa. The young scientists amazed the crowd with their own exceptional achievements, combined with their clear brilliance, passion and devotion to contributing to the advancement of medical interventions of various types in the regions in which they work and live.

Jeerapond Leelawattanachai, 33, from Thailand, is a researcher at the National Nanotechnology Center (NANOTEC), National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA), Thailand. Her research aims to develop a cost-effective and highly specific diagnostic test of latent tuberculosis infection (LTBI). According to WHO, one third of the world’s population are currently infected with Mycobacterium tuberculosis. This large population of LTBI constitutes a major source of infection and onward transmission. While current standard diagnostic tests of LTBI have several limitations, their proposed skin test in a bandage format, utilising microneedle technology, would potentially improve diagnostic accuracy, reduce false positive results, and have a significant positive impact on the control of LTBI.

Nataly Nasser Al Deen, a PhD student from Lebanon, at the American University of Beirut (AUB) is focusing her research on early breast cancer in Lebanese women below the age of 40 and is the founder of ‘Pink Steps’, an exercise health initiative for breast cancer survivors in Lebanon. Nataly earned her M.Sc. from Georgetown University in Tumor Biology as a Fulbright Scholar and her B.Sc. from the American University in Cairo as a MEPI Tomorrow’s Leaders Scholar.

Svenja Kohler is a medical student from the University of Lübeck who together with fellow students, founded a charity four years ago to improve the perspective of socially deprived children in Senegal and spread knowledge about sexual health, hygiene and gender equality. 

 

As these young women discussed both their projects and challenges in delivering these projects to and with the communities which they serve, I was struck by how mindful they are of vital issues that must be carefully navigated. The issues and points made include:

 

  • You have to build trust. Trust goes in multiple directions and must be carefully crafted and cultivated, possibly over years. Communities must trust scientists, scientists must trust clinicians, clinicians must trust NGO and industry partners, individuals receiving medical interventions must trust everyone. And of course, scientists, medical professionals and community representatives must trust journalists and vice versa. It is essential, in particular in the developing world, to build that trust and not expect that you can come up with a great idea and scale it to a population without ensuing that trust is firmly in place.

 

  • You have to communicate in the language of the community. The panellists emphasised that to be successful in deploying solutions in developing nations especially, one has to speak the local language. But cultural linguistics is just the starting point. Leelawattanachai smartly mentioned the importance of speaking the language of business, a key insight which I was so thrilled she brought up. When scientists, medical researchers and clinicians learn the language of business and entrepreneurship, not only can they create and deliver more effective solutions, but they also have the ability to better facilitate strategic partnerships with industry.

 

#LINO18 Svenja Kohler speaking at the Press Talk. Photo/Credit: Julia Nimke/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

  • Industry can and does play an important role. Businesses, particularly national or international corporations, are important players in investing in, designing and delivering medical innovations in developing nations. Companies bring money, resources and staff. They have access to complicated logistical networks that ensure interventions safely and efficaciously get to patients and patient advocacy groups. They are strategic.

 

  • Know your stakeholders. Just as we journalists need to know our audiences, scientists and clinicians who want to deploy medical innovations into communities must get to know those communities and the stakeholders. This point really resonated with me personally, as I am in the early phase of a reporting project associated with a global polio eradication programme in India. This programme has multiple partners, ranging from companies to NGOs to doctors to engineers and logistics providers to patient advocates. But what struck me as so interesting was that all the stakeholders realised that if they are going to immunise kids against polio in villages, they can’t just pop by and say “hey, here’s an immunisation”. They have to build trust – see above – and they have to know what motivates the stakeholders. In my early reporting, I have heard how NGOs are specifically reaching out and building rapport, sometimes over years, with the mothers in villages since they are the gatekeepers of the children and essentially serve as diplomats to the medical professionals. Knowing the strategic role mothers play in deploying these medical interventions is what makes this global program so successful year after year. Every project has key stakeholders – so get to know them, understand what motivates them, and help them to help you and vice versa.
Alaina G. Levine

About Alaina G. Levine

Alaina G. Levine is an award-winning entrepreneur, STEM career consultant, science journalist, professional speaker and corporate comedian, and author of Networking for Nerds (Wiley, 2015), which was named one of the Top 5 Books of 2015 by Physics Today. She has delivered over 700 speeches for clients in the EU, US, Canada, and Mexico, and written over 350 articles in publications such as Science, Nature, and NatGeo News Watch. In addition to serving as a Consultant to the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, she is currently writing two online courses for Oxford University Press/Epigeum about career development and entrepreneurship. @AlainaGLevine

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