Medical researcher wins prestigious $25,000 tropical medicine award

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
Tina Shelton, (808) 692-0897
Director of Communications, Office of Dean of Medicine
Posted: Nov 6, 2014

Dr. Anna Babakhayan, at right, with Livo Esemu, PhD candidate, University of Yaoudne.
Dr. Anna Babakhayan, at right, with Livo Esemu, PhD candidate, University of Yaoudne.

Dr. Anna Babakhanyan is the first University of Hawai`i Fellow to receive a prestigious national award from the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH).

Each year, only one postdoctoral fellow is honored with the $25,000 ASTMH Centennial Travel Award in Tropical Disease Research, which fosters international collaboration in tropical infectious diseases. Dr. Babakhanyan received the 2014 award to study how HIV infection alters the acquisition and maintenance of immunity to malaria in pregnant Kenyan women. Next year, she will spend six months in Kisumu, Kenya, where she will work with the research team at the Center for Global Health Research, Kenya Medical Research Institute.

"I had to re-read the award notice at least four times to convince myself I was selected, as this is truly a very competitive award and it is only by God’s grace that I have received it," said Dr. Babakhanyan. "I am very humbled and grateful to the ASTMH for this award. I know that the Lord has provided us these funds to make a breakthrough in pregnancy-associated malaria research."

This research bears hope for medical innovation as scientists continue to search for ways of preventing infectious diseases and assuring healthy deliveries and better lives for both mothers and infants. The proposed study has important public health significance, because Dr. Babakhanyan says 85 million pregnant women worldwide are at risk of having malaria. In pregnant women, malaria-infected red blood cells accumulate in the placenta, leading to many adverse outcomes such as maternal anemia, preterm deliveries and low birth weight babies who have increased risk of death during the first year of life.

HIV and malaria epidemics in sub-Saharan Africa intersect in pregnant women. Many HIV-positive women do not receive adequate care because of weak health systems in Africa. HIV-related immunosuppression has been shown to reduce immunity to several strains of malaria. Since HIV-positive women represent a particularly vulnerable population that would benefit from the malaria vaccine during pregnancy, data from Dr. Babakhanyan’s project will be important for developing vaccines, vaccination regimens and implementation policies.

She earned her doctoral degree from the Department of Tropical Medicine at the John A. Burns School of Medicine with the encouragement of its chair, Dr. Vivek Nerukar, and under mentorship of Dr. Diane Taylor, an expert on pregnancy-associated malaria. Dr. Taylor and Dr. Rose Leke at the Biotechnology Center in Cameroon have been studying immunity to the pregnancy-associated malaria for over 20 years.

“I have been greatly inspired by my mentor, Dr. Taylor, who nurtures her graduate student’s intellectual independence and leadership skills. She often challenges me to look beyond the mere numbers and think about biological mechanisms to explain the data,” says Dr. Babakhanyan. In 2012, she accompanied Dr. Taylor to Cameroon for the Immunology workshop.

"I did not realize the extent of poverty, infectious disease and human suffering until my first trip to Cameroon in 2012," said Dr. Babakhanyan. In 2013, she was honored with a Fogarty Postdoctoral Fellowship funded by the National Institutes of Health allowing her to conduct research in Cameroon, West Africa.

“Besides her academic career, Dr. Leke serves on various Scientific Advisory Committees such as the World Health Organization, and she taught me to see the big picture from a health systems perspective,” said Dr. Babakhanyan said.  "She encouraged my participation in meetings with Cameroonian and international key scientists and policy makers, such as Dr. Robert Newman, World Health Organization Global Malaria Program Director."

Working in Cameroon for the past year has been a life-changing experience. “It was a great opportunity not only to learn how to conduct research under challenging conditions, but also, while collecting samples at the maternity ward in Yaounde Central Hospital, to learn about many problems Cameroonian pregnant women face," said Dr. Babakhanyan.  “I am grateful for the pregnant Cameroonian women who participated in our studies, as their samples were used to generate preliminary data for the grant I have received."

This September, Dr. Babakhanyan returned from Cameroon and will continue her research as a postdoctoral fellow mentored by Dr. Arlene Dent at the Case Western Reserve University and a research team at the Kenya Medical Research Institute.

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