Fellow profile: Professor Novel Chegou

Through his EDCTP Senior Fellowship, Prof. Novel Chegou aimed to develop a much-needed new diagnostic that would accelerate the detection of TB meningitis in children, enabling treatment to begin much sooner. Prof. Chegou has gained extensive experience in previous EDCTP-funded TB biomarker projects. We asked Prof. Chegou how his EDCTP Fellowship has helped him to establish himself as a research leader through additional technical training, mentoring and leadership skills development.

Professor Chegou, what inspired you to pursue a career in science?
Novel Chegou (NG):
I grew up in a small village in Cameroon and saw people, including my family suffering from multiple ailments, with access to good medical facilities or practitioners being a challenge.  When I was in secondary school, I aimed to study medicine after completing high school to help sick people, including villagers such as those from my community. Due to challenges beyond my control, I was unable to even take the entrance exam to the only medical school that existed in the country at that time. I, however, enrolled at a university closer to home, to study Medical Laboratory Science, a new four-year undergraduate degree program that had recently been introduced. At least a degree in that field would also allow me to help patients, this time, from the diagnostic laboratory. After completing my undergraduate degree studies and attempting to work in routine diagnostic laboratories, I decided to study further and hence pursued postgraduate studies, which culminated in the scientific career that I now have. I believed that what I knew then was not enough, and the desire to study further pushed me towards the path that I followed, a path that I am extremely happy about now.


Why did you apply for an EDCTP Fellowship?
Applying for the EDCTP Fellowship would allow me the necessary funding to conduct my research.

Through your Senior Fellowship, you aimed to develop a new diagnostic to accelerate the detection of TB meningitis in children. Why is this important and what has the project achieved so far?
NG: TB meningitis is a terrible disease and is the most severe form of TB. It mainly affects children and adults who are HIV infected. The focus of my Senior Fellowship as you have rightly mentioned, was on the validation of biomarkers, and the development of a prototype diagnostic test that could be used for the diagnosis of the disease, especially in children. This is an extremely important topic because it is currently very challenging to diagnose TB meningitis, especially in children. Work done by other investigators, including my clinical colleagues has shown that it currently takes up to six visits to healthcare facilities before eventual diagnosis of the disease, due to the lack of effective diagnostic tests. As a result, 50% of children who are successfully diagnosed with the disease either die or suffer from neurological problems if successfully put on treatment. These problems mainly result from diagnostic delays and not the lack of anti-TB antibiotics. We therefore aimed to develop or at least contribute to the development of a simple test that could be used for the rapid diagnosis of the disease. Through my EDCTP Senior Fellowship, we have validated strong candidate biomarkers for the diagnosis of the disease. Besides recruiting engineering students to develop different types of prototype tests for the diagnosis of the disease at the point of care, based on the biomarkers validated through the project, we are also collaborating with an industrial partner who is based in South Africa, for the development of the test. That part of the project is currently ongoing, with additional support for the work being done by the industrial partner provided by the South African Medical Research Council through the SAMRC MeDDIC platform.

How many students and junior researchers were you able to mentor as part of your fellowship, and where are they now?
NG: Training students and postdoctoral fellows was a major part of the fellowship. As I am collaborating with investigators from diverse fields including Molecular Biologists, Immunologists, Paediatric Neurologists, and Engineers, I co-supervise some of the junior researchers involved in the project. We have so far mentored 10 core project junior scientists ranging from a BSc. Honours student, 5 Master of Science or Master of Engineering students, two PhD students, to two postdoctoral fellows. The project also supported 4 additional junior investigators including two PhD students and two early career researchers who benefited by using specimens collected from study participants for additional investigations outside the scope of work being done in the fellowship. These additional junior investigators were supervised by other colleagues based at the Stellenbosch University. Four of the MSc and MEngineering students mentored are expected to graduate within the 2024 academic year. Previously graduated students are either working in industry, pursuing other degrees including medicine, or have moved on and taken postdoctoral fellowship positions elsewhere.

How has this Senior Fellowship allowed you to progress to a position of leadership locally, regionally, or globally?
I feel fortunate and am extremely grateful to have been awarded the fellowship as it has allowed me to collaborate with, and lead a highly multidisciplinary team of researchers. Funding received through the fellowship led to the generation of data which served as the basis for other grant applications on which I am collaborating with other renowned investigators, and continues to allow me to network with other international colleagues. While some may view it as coincidental, it is a fact that I moved from the rank of Senior Researcher to full professorship during the tenure of my Senior Fellowship, and have won a few local and national awards, plus the Royal Society Africa Prize during the tenure of my fellowship.  This speaks to the excellent work we are doing, which would not be possible without the multidisciplinary team of senior researchers I collaborate with, my mentors, and the students and junior researchers working with us. I owe all the successes that we have had so far to all these collaborators.

What would you like your legacy to be?
NG: I feel like I am relatively still in the early stages of my career, with a lot more that I can possibly do or contribute to. I also learn new things about the terrible disease that we call TB almost every day, and there is still a lot of learning that I need to do. However, at the end of the day, I would be grateful if the team I work with could contribute to the development of at least one tool that would help in alleviating the suffering of TB patients and their families globally. I would, however, surely feel most proud when I look back at the young Africans I have been privileged to mentor and see their careers blossoming wherever they may be around the world.