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Adesokan, scientist, wins MIT’s World Top Young Innovators Award

While several young Nigerians are busy  complaining  their country has not done anything for them, 35- year- old  US- based Nigerian born researcher, Yemi Adesokan, has put his country’s name on the map of nations of innovation.

Adesokan’s  discovery which  has potential to change the way mankind responds to disease pathogens, according to experts, may bring an end the  era of increased burden of drug resistance in the world particularly, in sub Saharan Africa.

Yemi Adesokan

When he moved to United States in 1996, little did the young innovator have realise that he was going to rub shoulders with some of the greatest names in scientific technology.

But today, Adesokan who has been listed by Technology Review, an independent media company owned by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, (MIT) USA. as one of the TR35 Award of the 2011 World top innovators.    Past recipients have included Sergey Brin (Google), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), and Konstantin Novoselev (later a Nobel Laureate in Physics).

Adesokan is being so specially honoured for his work in the application of next generation sequencing to clinical diagnostics.  Adesokan, who is also the founder of Pathogenica Inc., was selected as a member of the TR35 class of 2011 by a panel of expert judges and the editorial staff of Technology Review, who evaluated more than 300 nominations.

By this recognition, he will be joining other TR35 honorees in discussing their achievements at the Emtech MIT 2011 conference, taking place at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, October 18 to 19, 2011.

In this chat with Chioma Obinna, he speaks on the award and the benefits of his innovation in the diagnostics world.

Excerpts:

What it is all about

This work is being carried out by a biotechnology startup that I founded with Prof George Church of Harvard Medical School DNA technology.  The Pathogenica’s test kits are able to identify the presence, allowing for physicians to screen for multiple diseases with accurate results and a rapid turnaround.

I founded pathogenica with genomics pioneer and Harvard Prof George Church in 2009 in order to commercilaise applications of pathogen sequencing.

Sequencing technologies have improved a million – fold in the past seven years, bringing scientists a wealth of individual genomics and the key now is to employ the data to improve clinical practice. The DNA sequence of each individual or organism is unique, and is the most detailed signature for identification.

This year marks one decade since the completion of  the Human Genome Project, a three billion-dollar effort to sequence a human genome.

A major issue in Nigeria today, is that some sterilised water may contain harmful pathogens.  The technology is useful in screening a range of  pathogens in water, livestock (poultry, etc.), and in food manufacturing.  The key point for this technology is its high multiple.  As it scales up, we actually see a reduction in price.

With the innovation, the cost of DNA sequencing has dropped more than 40,000_fold since that time to just $5,000 today.  The price continues to drop.  We are applying this fast, inexpensive technology in a unique way to improve routine clinical diagnostics.

Impact on clinical practice

The utility of  the innovation in clinical practice lies in the low error rate, thereby reducing the number of inaccurate diagnoses due to false positives or the emergence of drug resistance mutations undetected by current methods.  This reduces the occurrence of patient mortality (death) due to misdiagnosed infections.

In addition, the technology does not require cultures as samples.  Tuberculosis (TB) samples can take over one week to culture.  We can demonstrate  diagnostic results in a single day. This would reduce the spread of Tuberculosis   In the case of HPV, which causes cervical cancer and other types of cancers, this technology can be used for detection with a very low occurrence of error. The error rate is very low.

Plans to bring it to Nigeria

We are very interested in finding partners in the Nigerian private and public sectors, particularly as TB is not an issue in the US market. We plan to visit Nigeria around November to give some presentations on the utility of our technology, particularly in the case of drug-resistant infections.

TR35 Award

The TR35 award is presented each year to 35 innovators under the age of 35 whose “accomplishments are poised to have a dramatic impact on the world. The TR35 recognises the world’s top innovators, spanning energy, medicine, computing, communications, nanotechnology, and other emerging fields.

It  is given by MIT’s Technology Review Magazine.  Needless to say, Technology Review has an excellent track record in predicting innovative technologies. Pathogenica, Inc., was selected for this award based on my work on the development of fast DNA sequencing technologies for clinical diagnostics.

Nigerian government and Research

I think more can be done, especially in encouraging young innovators.  The establishment of technology incubators to nurture and fund young companies would be a good starting point. There is need for the government to send science and technology representatives  to scout out new innovations worldwide, and encourage private sector venture capitalists to invest in local technology innovation.


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