AIMS Alumnus Abdo Elnaser Degoot creates Model to improve vaccine design efficiency

African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS Alumnus) Abdoelnaser Degoot graduated with a PhD in applied Math’sfrom the University of KwaZulu Natalin April 2019.

“He joins a growing list of AIMS alumni who have received a PhD degree and of whom we’re rightly proud,”said his Supervisor, Dr. Wilfred Ndifon, Professor of Theoretical Biologyand Director of Research – AIMS Global Network.

The main contribution of Dr.Degoot’s PhD work is tothe development and use of a biophysical model to elucidate determinants of certain biomolecular interactions that are vital to the way T-cells respond to infections and willbehighly applicable to the design of vaccines.

According to MediceneNet (2019), a T-cell is a type of white blood cell that is of key importance to the immune system and is at the core of adaptive immunity, the system that tailors the body’s immune response to specific pathogens. The T cells are like soldiers who search out and destroy the targeted invaders.

AIMS conducted an interview with Dr. Degoot where he talked about illustrious academic journey and how he expects his new model to help address some of the prevailing challenges regarding vaccines in Africa.

You recently received your PhD in Applied Mathematics, briefly take us through your educational journey and the main inspirations that kept you going up to this lifetime milestone?

I came from Darfur region in the western part of Sudan, a region that regularly surfaces on in global news headlines in connection conflict. When the civil war started in my country in 2003, I had just finished primary school and was admitted into a prestigious high school located in the capital city of the region that only accepts students with the highest marks. My family had to take a difficult decision as they fled from the war into a neighboring country, Chad; I had to take on my own journey to school. It was a tough decision but my parents said I had to go for it. That was the turning point to a journey that has brought me where I am today. I finished high school and joined the University of Khartoum for undergraduate studies majoring in mathematics and computer sciences. I graduated in 2010 with an excellent score that qualified me to take the position of teaching assistant in the department of Applied Mathematics. It was during my time as a teaching assistant that I enrolled for a Master’s program; I graduated in 2012.In 2013 I was fortunate to get an AIMS scholarship and went to the AIMS-Ghana Center for another Master in Mathematical Sciences. AIMS was a great experience as it enriched my perspective about science and humanity. Upon completion of the program, I went back to my previous University and worked there for a year. In July 2015 I enrolled for my PhD at University of KwaZulu-Natal and my research was supervised by Prof. Wilfred Ndifon whom I had met at AIMS-Ghana.

How did your time at AIMS impact on your PhD studies?

AIMS was a life changing experience for me. The courses I took at AIMS filled the existing gap in my knowledge and prepared me to become an independent researcher.

Your PhD research focused on the development and use of a biophysical model to explain the grounds forbiomolecular interactionsthat are vital to the way Tcells respond to infections.What does this mean, in common man’s language?

The human body has an incredible innate ability to remember pathogens (disease agents) that it has previously encountered, which gives it the ability to fight off infections from the same pathogens in future attacks. Vaccination uses this same principle by creating and introducing an “artificial disease” in an individual through carefully designed pathogens, in order to train the body to fight off similar attacks in the future. For this to be effective, these “fake infections” must resemble the real disease so closely that they trigger a strong immune response in the body. Traditionally, vaccines have been created in laboratories, which causes a range of limitations. Researchers often do not know what the actual components of pathogens that result in a disease response are, and they do not fully understand the mechanism of the disease. Lab work is also often not suitable for particular types of diseases, and can be time-consuming and expensive. My model basically leverages on the vast amount of available biological data, made possible by fantastic new technology; my model uses mathematics, physics, statistics and computation tools to predict the proper parts of pathogens that will drive a potent immune response. The results will help and guide immunologists to design efficient vaccines, as well as reduce the laboratory time needed to develop vaccines.

We have heard of stories regarding ineffective vaccines which has led to considerable resistance to diseases in Africa and beyond, how do you expect your work to make a difference in this regard?

Ineffective vaccines are largely a result of difficulties in traditional ways of designing vaccines. Computational methods like what I have proposed in my model, can help practitioners in developing safer and low-cost, yet effective vaccines.

Most deaths in Africa are caused by arguably curable diseases; what is not being done/what more can be done to change this discourse; how much hope do mathematical scientists like yourself hold for the future of disease control?

I think that the fight against infectious diseases requires a variety of complementary weapons. Mathematical modeling is one of those weapons that is complementary to wet-lab approaches. Continual progress and sustainable development of these kinds of models, yields bits and pieces of insight, resulting in the accumulation of knowledge that would be useful in the quest to reduce mortality caused by diseases.

Moving forward, what next for Dr. Abdoelnaser Degoot?

I see myself active in both academia and the health sector. I will continue to develop my models and participate in knowledge translation initiatives. Currently, I am a visiting Research Fellow at AIMS Rwanda working on, among other things, using my models to quantitatively characterize the selection factors of immune response to malaria infections among children, based on real data that has been gathered by the Ndifon Group, an eclectic group of mathematical scientists and wet-lab experimentalists based at AIMS, workingto uncover the mechanisms of one of nature’s most important inventions —adaptive immunity.