Women in Research: Educating Drug Development Scientists in Papua New Guinea

March 8, 2021

WIPO Re:Search spoke with Dr. Martha Yahimbu, a senior lecturer in pharmacy at the University of Papua New Guinea, who received training through the WIPO Re:Search fellowship program in 2019. Today she supervises new generations of scientists interested in drug discovery.

Profile: WIPO Re:Search Fellow 2019, Dr. Martha Yahimbu

(Photo: curtesy of Dr Martha Yahimbu)

Dr. Yahimbu’s research leverages Papua New Guinea’s unique medicinal plants and marine organisms to develop better treatments for Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) and TB. During her fellowship at Johnson & Johnson, under the supervision of Dr. Paul Jackson, Scientific Director, Johnson & Johnson, Dr. Yahimbu honed her skills in compound screening, natural product isolation and purification, and mass spectrometry. She then immediately applied those skills on a human African trypanosomiasis (also known as sleeping sickness) drug discovery project at the neighboring University of California, San Diego (UCSD), where she joined the Center for Discovery and Innovation in Parasitic Diseases at Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.

There, under the supervision of Professor Conor Caffrey, Dr. Yahimbu also gained leadership, data analysis and project management experiences.

Now back in Papua New Guinea, she is applying her skills to lead local and international collaborative research and development (R&D) projects in drug discovery, as well as to train junior investigators. Dr. Yahimbu continues her drug discovery collaborations with Johnson & Johnson and UCSD, and has established an international R&D collaboration with researchers from UK’s Royal Botanical Gardens, and Barcelona, Spain to develop a treatment for tropical ulcers using plant sap. At present, she is also co-supervising a Master’s in Public Health student on the potential of producing treatment for ulcers in Papua New Guinea.

Dr. Yahimbu, how did your work in the University of Papua New Guinea change as a result of the fellowship?

I joined the School of Medicine & Health Sciences (SMHS) of the University right before starting my fellowship; for many years before that, I was working at the main campus of the same University. Therefore, I was quite a newcomer at SMHS when I came back from the United States [where the fellowship took place], and my work at the School before that did not touch upon cell molecular research. After the fellowship, however, I established connections with my colleagues in molecular research and managed to enter some of their discussion groups. Today, thanks to the skills I gained in the United States, the dean and deputy dean of SMHS call upon me whenever they initiate research projects in drug discovery.

In addition, I am working to revive the natural products and biomedicines lab at the University, which has not been used for a while. We have progressed on preparing the space for new operations, and this year we are hiring a technical person to ensure that the equipment is up and running. Later on, I am hoping to be able to collaborate with my colleagues from the USA and UK on research projects using this lab, and to bring in some new materials and equipment.

However, the most important development, I believe, is my focus on science students’ training: making sure that my skills are transferred to new generations of local researchers.

Could you tell us more about your work as a research supervisor for young researchers at the University?

(Photo: curtesy of Dr Martha Yahimbu)

I am currently coordinating a research group of around 70 students across the three disciplines (Pharmacy, Medical laboratory sciences and Medical Imaging Sciences) of the Health Sciences division at SMHS. In this work, I mainly supervise and direct their research, and help them with the development of their projects. In addition, I am also in charge of the pharmaceutical studies, closely overseeing the projects of students in this research group.

However, I am most proud of another part of my work: training a small number of final-year pharmacy students specifically on drug discovery and development skills that I gained during the WIPO Re:Search fellowship. Within the last two years, I already shared my skills with five students who are now able to perform drug development research on the basic level. This year, I have two more final year students to share my knowledge with. It is very inspiring, to see that a new generation of Papua New Guinean scientists so early in their training are acquiring the skills that I could gain only in the second half of my scientific career.

A student testimony

I developed an interest in drug discovery research during the courses in pharmacognosy and in phytochemical and traditional medicine with Dr. Yahimbu. This is why I approached her to supervise my final-year Pharmacy research project on Phytochemical Screening and Potential Anti-Microbial Effects of Selected Medicinal Plants in Manus Province, using antimicrobial tests and phytochemical screening of the traditional medicinal plant extracts.

The experience of working under Dr. Yahimbu’s supervision taught me a lot. I learned how to use some of the latest relevant scientific research information to ensure that all parts of the experiments were done in accordance with the standard. I learned the general aspects of drug discovery using plant materials, qualitative tests approaches, and other applied science skills. As a result of Dr. Yahimbu’s rigorous supervision of my research project, I scored the first highest distinction grade among the final year pharmacy students in 2019.

Dabeseth Davies, a young pharmacy graduate, now completing her pharmacy residency in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

What are your main projects right now?

Currently, I am working a lot on writing grant proposals for new research on NTDs and other diseases. For example, along with three of my colleagues, I am writing a proposal to do chemical analysis of all medicinal plants traditionally used in Papua New Guinea for release of TB and asthma. Papua New Guinea has a national traditional medicinal plant database with over 3500 records - it is the only such database in the world that is continuously updated and used. However, these plants do not have validated medicinal properties, and, together with my colleagues, I would like to conduct research to analyze these plants and validate the ones that can be used for further medical research. Not only is this project born thanks to the skills I gained during my fellowship with WIPO Re:Search, but its implementation will also benefit from the network I built while in the US. After the local preliminary tests, we would send the results to my collaborators in the US for further chemical analysis.

In addition, I am writing another proposal related to the same traditional medicinal plants library. The use of many plants is not fully documented and differs greatly across populations and regions in Papua New Guinea. Therefore, I would like to conduct a project with my research students, giving them the opportunity to go to the field and collect the information on the medicinal uses of the existing plants and existence of other plants to be added to the library. One of the WIPO Re:Search founding partners, BVGH, is assisting us in identification of organizations to send proposals to, and helps to get a bigger picture of where else we can find support.

(Photo: curtesy of Dr Martha Yahimbu)

What are you currently looking forward to in your career?

Recently, BVGH encouraged me to submit an abstract for the 2020 American Society of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene (ASTMH) annual meeting, and I was awarded a travel to Maryland, USA, to attend the 2021 ASTMH annual meeting in November 2021, if COVID-19 pandemic permits. I find this opportunity to engage and exchange ideas about research in drug discovery with other researchers from around the world very enriching and timely, especially in light of the WHO’s goal to eliminate neglected tropical diseases by 2030.

In addition, I was recently introduced to a research group based in the United Kingdom and working on medical use of traditional plants. I am going to engage with them for in-vitro and lab tests for antimicrobial assays of over 100 plant sap samples. After that, the chemical analysis of the most bioactive chemical compounds will be performed in the UK. I find such international collaborations between scientists essential, especially in the field of drug development. It helps to connect the different stages of drug discovery and make the research complete; moreover, it is very encouraging to be working collaboratively and not in isolation.

About WIPO Re:Search

WIPO Re:Search is a global public-private partnership between WIPO and BIO Ventures for Global Health (BVGH), a non-profit organization that connects the for-profit and non-profit sectors to solve global health challenges. WIPO Re:Search supports early-stage research and development (R&D) in the fight against neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), malaria, and tuberculosis. Through targeted, mutually beneficial R&D collaborations among its members, the partnership catalyzes royalty-free sharing of IP – including compounds, data, clinical samples, technology, and expertise – and drives progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals.