An Interview with AER15 Keynote Speaker Boghuma Titanji

PRIM&R is pleased to welcome Boghuma Kabisen Titanji, MD, MSc, PhD, as one of the keynote speakers at the upcoming 2015 Advancing Ethical Research Conference to be hosted in Boston November 12-15, 2015. Dr. Titanji will lead off the conference program on November 13 with an address titled, Facts and Fiction: The Ethics of Healthcare Research in Developing Countries.

PRIM&R: How did you develop an interest in your field?
Boghuma Kabisen Titanji (BT): Very early on during my training as a physician in my home country Cameroon, I realized how considerable the burden of infectious diseases was on the local patient population. These diseases, which are mostly treatable and preventable, remain the leading cause of death in a context of limited resources, where trained medical personnel and research data is severely lacking. This sparked my interest to combine research and clinical practice to address important questions in the field of infectious diseases and tropical medicine. My research focuses mainly on HIV drug resistance and pathogenesis. I hope through my work to make a positive contribution toward improving the clinical management of these conditions and reducing the burden of disease in resource-limited settings.

PRIM&R: How would you explain your field of study to someone unfamiliar with it?
BT: I currently study the different ways in which the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) spreads and infects cells within the body and how we can use antiretroviral drugs and neutralizing antibodies to better target the virus and eliminate it from its reservoirs (hiding places) within the body. Although the treatment for HIV has come a long way, there is still no cure for the infection and treatment with antiretroviral drugs remains a lifelong commitment for infected patients. It is therefore crucial to have a clear understanding of how the virus spreads and persists within its host in order to develop new strategies aimed at eradicating the virus.

PRIM&R: How does your field of study/area of expertise intersect with research ethics?
BT: Conducting clinical research in Africa presents a unique set of ethical challenges due to the vulnerabilities of the target populations. This is especially true for infectious diseases and vaccine research. In the last decade, the African continent has seen significant growth in healthcare research in response to the serious health challenges of the continent. Unfortunately, funding for healthcare research is unaffordable for many African countries and historically Africa has had to rely on sponsors and researchers from high-income countries. The increase in research volume has not been accompanied by the necessary improvements in research surveillance systems. These dynamics not only increase the vulnerability for exploitative research but also raise concerns that researchers may conduct research in Africa that is not easily done in their own countries due to a more robust research regulatory framework. These factors pose a significant task for clinical researchers like myself who have the responsibility of understanding the challenges of conducting valuable research in resource-poor settings and ensuring that their research does not have a negative impact on the target populations they are trying to help.

PRIM&R: What do you want our audience to take away from your talk at the 2015 Advancing Ethical Research Conference?
BT: Through my talk at the 2015 AER Conference, I would like to give the audience an honest and uncensored look at the ethical challenges that are faced when carrying out clinical research in resource-limited settings, both through the lens of the researcher and that of the study participants. I hope through this to:

  • Provide a better understanding of research ethics in this context.
  • Start a conversation on novel ways of strengthening and improving research surveillance structures in these settings.
  • Ensure that the protection of study participants remains the top priority of any researcher, especially when dealing with vulnerable populations.

Boghuma Kabisen Titanji, MD, MSc, PhD, is a Cameroonian born physician and clinical researcher who recently completed her PhD at University College London (UCL) following an MSc in Tropical Medicine and International Health from the University of London. Her current research focuses on the mechanisms of HIV transmission and antiretroviral drug resistance. Dr. Titanji is passionate about health policy and the ethics of medical research in Africa. In 2012, as a TED speaker, she shed light on the ethics of scientific research in vulnerable communities. She continues to promote the improvement of research within the African continent, recently addressing the Centenary Assembly of the Association of Commonwealth Universities on creating an environment favoring the return of early career researchers to Africa. She also made the British Broadcasting Corporation’s list of the “100 Women Changing the World” in 2014. Through the advancement of ethically sound research, Dr. Titanji continues to work towards combining medical research with clinical practice to influence health policy in Africa.