A Profile of Professor Christian Happi

One third of malaria illness and death worldwide occurs in Nigeria [1]. In fact, over 300,000 Nigerians die of the disease each year, and millions of those who survive the illness suffer economically from lost productivity [2]. The situation is being further compounded by the emergence of artemisinin resistance (an antimalarial drug derived from the sweet wormwood plant) in South-East Asia and the possibility of artemisinin resistant parasites spreading to Africa.

Despite advances in parasite biology, little is known about the genetic diversity of the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum in Nigeria, which makes monitoring the emergence of parasite drug resistance a tremendous challenge. All these factors underscore the urgent need to expand research and scientific training as the global public health focus shifts from malaria control to elimination and eradication.

Professor Happi, Centre Director for the Africa Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID) and the Dean of the College of Postgraduate Studies at Redeemer’s University and expert in antimalarial drug resistance, is in a unique position to advance our understanding of the genetic diversity of P. falciparum in Nigeria. As the ExxonMobil Malaria Leadership Fellow, Professor Happi has maintained a longstanding relationship with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, where early in his career he trained as a postdoctoral fellow with world-renowned tropical disease expert Professor Dyann Wirth. He later joined the School’s Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases first as a Research Fellow, then as Visiting Scientist upon returning to Nigeria. His research experience includes collaborating with Professor Dyann Wirth and colleagues on research projects related to antimalarial drug resistance, and more recently working with Professor Pardis Sabeti to the diagnosis and understanding the genetic diversity of the Lassa Fever virus, a deadly pathogen that kills thousands of people in West Africa every year.

Christian Happi and colleagues

In the area of malaria, Professor Happi’s efforts focus on understanding the genetic diversity of Plasmodium falciparum and using this information to generate a molecular epidemiology map of antimalarial drug resistance in Nigeria. Leveraging his knowledge of the mechanisms of parasite resistance to various antimalarial drugs in the Southwestern part of Nigeria, he is currently working to uncover the mechanisms of parasite resistance to antimalarial drugs in a number of new ecological, epidemiological, and geo-political settings within Nigeria. A molecular epidemiology map will allow researchers and academics to uncover how resistance to antimalarial drugs might emerge and spread. Creating this ‘map’ requires training individuals to collect specific data at a number of sites across the country. As an ExxonMobil Malaria Leadership Fellow, Professor Happi is building human capacity in this area by training clinicians, researchers and laboratory scientists and technicians to collect blood samples on filter paper, process and analyze samples, as well as providing foundational knowledge in basic molecular malaria biology and microscopy. A cohort of twelve (12) clinical and technical officers have benefitted from this training in the first phase of mapping P. falciparum in Nigeria. Phase two will focus on data analysis and interpretation, with the goal of publishing findings in a peer-reviewed journal. The project’s training efforts are implemented in close collaboration with the Nigerian National Malaria Control Program and align with the Ministry’s evidence-based antimalarial drugs policies.

As part of his own training and professional development, Professor Happi took part in the Science of Eradication: Malaria leadership development course that was convened at the Harvard Business School in June 2012.  A multidisciplinary course addressing themes of malaria control and elimination, Professor Christian Happi saw this as a landmark event in his own career development, allowing him to apply his own highly focused and technical research in the broader context of global malaria eradication. In Professor Happi’s view, bringing together professionals from diverse sectors and disciplines, especially those from malaria endemic countries, provides an unprecedented opportunity for individuals to learn from leading researchers and academics in the field of malaria and to also learn from their own shared experiences in the fight against malaria.

[1] Assessing the Progress of Malaria Control in Nigeria

[2] Malaria Prevention Program in Nigeria Aims at Universal Bed Net Coverage