Former 2020 TCC Africa Trainee, Dr. Zephania Birech is a physicist from the School of Physical Sciences at the University of Nairobi, who was at first curious on how to work at a multidisciplinary research level, then later took the plunge and started collaborating with health scientists in his research projects. The result is that, he came up with innovations that have created innovative rapid prediction techniques of metabolic diseases such as diabetes and obesity.
TCC Africa : What inspired you to expand your research scope to a multidisciplinary level from Physical to Health Sciences?
Birech : Essentially, it is important to ensure that your work tries to provide solutions to problems in the society. Traditionally, Physics is considered a subject that is done within the labs, playing around with pendulums but little is known that physics can actually be applied in other areas. I wanted to try and show that physics can be used to solve other problems in society and the immediate area that I realized I can put my expertise in, is in the field of Health Sciences and I was keen to see how my training in Laser Technology could be applied .
TCC Africa : In what specific research areas have you extended the multidisciplinary approach of working with the health sector?
Birech : My first research assignment was when I tasked one of my students to see whether the Raman spectroscopic technique that we have in our lab could be used to screen for the HIV virus. We did some work which was later published here https://doi.org/10.1007/s00216-017-0267-0 and showed that we could use this technique called Raman spectroscopy, which is a laser based technique, to rapidly screen for the HIV virus in blood plasma. After that I also came across another colleague from the medical Health Sciences who was looking for someone with whom he could collaborate in some research work involving alternative methods of detecting metabolic diseases. We started working together from then on and currently, we have been looking into diabetes and obesity. What we do, is using animal subjects, basically rats, where we induce metabolic diseases, such as diabetes in the rats and then treat them by administering herbal medication and compare their effluence against the condition with some of the conventional medications. Since the techniques that currently available on screening these diseases are a bit costly, we decided to work together in exploring this alternative technique. This is where we started.
TCC Africa : Could you please tell us more about your collaborative work on metabolic diseases with the health science researcher and take us more through what you are doing together?
Birech : I work closely with Dr. Peter Waweru from the Department of Medical Physiology. Together with his students, they handle animal subjects and extract blood samples , which, they bring to our physics department lab, where we characterize the samples spectroscopically and do the detection and interpret the results for him.
TCC Africa :How does this help Dr.Waweru’s work?
Birech : Well, this process has helped create a low cost method of screening metabolic diseases and is more timely and rapid than previously established methods.
TCC Africa : If we look at it from a long term perspective, how will your research help the health sector especially in the detection of diabetes? How will it help the health sector from a multidisciplinary perspective since almost everything is being done traditionally?
Birech : Our initial interest was in diabetes. My concern is that once you get it ,you have to live with it and learn to manage the condition. Our interest was to try and find alternative ways of predicting chances that a person is likely to develop this condition in future. In order to do this our technique uses biomarkers in blood such as proteins and amino acids. This technique of using Raman spectroscopic biomarker bands of molecules is new and novel in that it predicts chances of developing the disease so that one can arrest the situation before it is late.
TCC Africa : So, what you are saying is that so far no one in the country is using this technique? Is this new?
Birech : Yes. In this country we are the only ones trying to use it and is at the moment it’s still in the exploratory stage.
TCC Africa : What does this collaboration you’ve created mean for the future of the medical field once it is out of the exploratory stage and ready for commercial use?
Birech : The technique that the machine uses requires no reagents, so mass screening can be done at a low cost. The fact that it can be used to predict the condition beforehand can be very helpful. You can also have one machine for use in large populations which gives you results within a short length of time. Really, within minutes so that you don’t have to wait.
TCC Africa : What triggered your decision to come for the Science Communication course at the Training Centre in Communication in January?
Birech : The kind of technique that we use and our research publications use technical terms that perhaps the general public may not comprehend. I wanted to learn how we can simplify the communication to ordinary people.
TCC Africa : Given that this research is still at university research level, do you think that the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) can take up this technology as well?
Birech :Yes. It definitely can.
TCC Africa :Interesting. Are there published works on your research?
Birech : Yes. Please go to these links to access them , https://profiles.uonbi.ac.ke/birech and https://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C5&q=zephaniah+birech+&btnG