Ekene Nweke’s research focuses on identifying potential biomarkers by high-throughput screening of differentially expressed genes in pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer is an uncommon type of cancer with almost an equal amount of new cases and deaths observed yearly. Nweke has applied for a patent in research regarding drug discovery and was awarded a “First time inventor award” by WITS enterprise (University of Witwatersrand) on the 20th of April 2014. He is currently a PHD student in clinical medicine at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.
What is your background?
I attended King’s college Lagos Nigeria, where I obtained my High school diploma. I then obtained my Bachelor’s of science Honours from Madonna University where I was an outstanding student an awarded Best Research Student 2009. I did the compulsory one year service to my country (Nigeria) in which I was a science facilitator and also did some amazing volunteer work as Mass literacy campaign coordinator. I have also completed (in one year) my MSC at WITS University with a distinction from the School of Molecular and Cell biology.
In 2014 I applied for a patent in some work I did regarding drug discovery and was awarded a “First time inventor award” by WITS enterprise (University of Witwatersrand) on the 20th of April 2014. My work during my Masters have also enabled me co-author an original publication in an international peer-reviewed journal (IJMS). I have since started a PHD in clinical medicine at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. where I am working hard to discover potential biomarkers for pancreatic cancer.
Also, I’ve taken up the responsibility of co- supervising honours students in various projects. I am also amongst the select few chosen for a fully funded COACHLAB Bio-entrepreneurship program at the Innovation Hub in Pretoria in which young scientist are trained to enhance their entrepreneurship skills. This training has since begun on the 6th of July 2015.
What is your research and why is it important?
Pancreatic cancer is an uncommon type of cancer with almost an equal amount of new cases and deaths observed yearly. It accounts for about 7% of cancer related deaths worldwide. Early symptoms of pancreatic cancer (PC) are mostly masked by the location of the pancreas in the retroperitoneal region; this enables PC to be undetected until striking signs appear. Commonly identified predisposing risk factors include; tobacco usage, family history heavy alcohol drinking, obesity, diabetes, aging, exposure to certain chemicals. In each hospital in Johannesburg, there is an incidence of 2-4 cases per month of pancreatic cancer and almost all patients die with 6 months of diagnosis.
This calls for an urgent need for the discovery of a biomarker(s) that can be able to screen and detect pancreatic cancer at its early stage for surgical treatment to be administered effectively. This study will use tissue biopsies from pancreatic cancer patients in Chris Hani Baragwanath in Johannesburg to identify biomarker(s) for pancreatic cancer by studying its genomics and proteomics with the use of high throughput screening. Identification of the biomarker(s) it will help reduce in reducing the high mortality rate observed in pancreatic cancer.
How does your research contribute to the broader field of science and public health?
In most cases, patients are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer when the tumour is advanced and metastasized making curative surgery quite impossible. At the early stages of pancreatic cancer, it is usually misdiagnosed due to the lack of efficient diagnostic tests and the similarity of its symptoms to other ailments. Early diagnosis is critical for increasing survival rates for patients with pancreatic cancer; this makes the discovering of biomarkers paramount. Serological biomarkers of pancreatic cancer exist but they do not provide an efficient way for the detection of pancreatic cancer.
Characteristics of an ideal marker includes, being able to provide prognostic and predictive information in order to help guide decisions of clinicians and to provide adequate information on the activity of the disease. Over the years several potential biomarkers have been discovered and studied amongst them is the most widely talked about amongst this is CA 19-9 but it lacks enough specificity and sensitivity for screening and diagnosing pancreatic cancer at an early stage. Also, just recently it’s been identified that Glypican-1 identifies cancer exosomes and can be used in the detection of pancreatic cancer; however, it is also detected in breast cancer. Currently there is no marker that sufficiently detects with acute specificity and sensitivity early pancreatic cancer alone.