PEGGOTY MUTAI: Drugs; You have to kiss many frogs to find a prince

Saturday March 31 2012

By CHRISTINE MUNGAI

Peggoty Mutai’s passion for science was sparked by growing up in a green, serene environment.

“I grew up in Kericho surrounded by nature, playing in the tea bushes. That really influenced my love for science.”

The 32-year-old attended Alliance Girls High School before proceeding to the University of Nairobi for a Bachelor of Science degree in pharmacy; she graduated in 2004.

She then worked for two years at a pharmacy before going back to the University of Nairobi for a master’s degree in pharmacy and pharmaceutical analysis.

“I get fascinated by research—asking yourself all kinds of questions, and discovering new things,” she said.

After her masters in 2009, she embarked on her PhD at the University of Nairobi in collaboration with the University of Cape Town in helminths, commonly known as parasitic worms.

“Worms are never given their due,” she said. “They are neglected tropical diseases, yet their effect is serious—they disrupt cognitive function and cause anaemia and intestinal obstruction, especially in children.”

Neglected tropical diseases are a group of parasitic and bacterial infections that plague 1.4 billion people globally—more than 40 times the number infected by HIV.

Besides soil-transmitted worm infections common among young children such as roundworm, hookworm and whipworm, the diseases include trachoma, schistosomiasis (bilharzia), elephantiasis and onchocerciasis or river blindness.

Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania are among 20 countries, where all seven neglected tropical diseases are endemic, with the majority of cases remaining undiagnosed.

Currently lecturing at the Univeristy of Nairobi’s School of Pharmacy, Ms Mutai, whose PhD research focuses on developing drugs that combat the helminths, said the biggest challenge in anti-helminth drug development is developing a method to test the drug’s efficacy.

Her research is getting international attention—she has been awarded this year’s L’Oréal-Unesco Women in Science fellowship, which recognises women who have made remarkable discoveries in the field of science.

The award will allow her to study at McGill University in Canada, where she intends to pursue her research further then return to Kenya and apply the technology.

Ms Mutai said that developing a drug is a long journey that requires the input of many different specialists.

“You kiss many frogs in search of a prince,” she said. “But my supervisor at the University of Cape Town always tells me that every negative result is another question to ask yourself. You have to persevere to succeed.”

Ms Mutai’s outgoing and bubbly personality is a sharp contrast to the stereotype scientist who is dull and socially awkward.

“I’m out to change that perception. People think that research is some monster, a hard nut to crack that can only result in a frustrating and stressful life. It’s true that answers don’t come easy, but it’s not as crazy as it’s made to sound,” she said.

She said that that her husband’s support has made all the difference. “He’s been really supportive.”