Over the last several weeks there has been online voting for three deserving finalists of the Bright Futures Prize competition at the renowned Harvard Medical School in Massachusetts, USA. The push and appeal to vote for one of the candidates, Wilfred Ngwa (PhD) has been fascinating to watch for many reasons, the most important being the likely impact that his search for a cure for cancer could have on individual lives, families and communities across the globe.
In the waning days of his campaign to be the fourth winner of the annual Bright Futures Prize, we caught up with the Brigham & Women Hospital (BWH) researcher to share with us about his belief in and passion for TiDTaC – the revolutionary one-two knockout punch against cancer that he and his team are working on; his motivation and inspiration in life; as well as thoughts on the long road to success.
DUNIA Magazine: Congratulations on your nomination to the final three of the Bright Futures Prize competition. If you don’t mind, can you recap for our readers the project that has qualified you to this final phase.
My project is about a cure for cancer, which is a leading cause of death worldwide. The 2014 World Health Organization (WHO) Cancer Report describes the growing global burden of cancer as alarming, a major obstacle to human development and well-being, with a rising annual economic cost of ca. US$ 1.16 trillion.
In particular, the report highlights major global cancer disparities, with over 60% of 14 million new cases and 70% of 8.2 million deaths per year occurring in low and middle income countries, like those in Africa where cancer is often equated to a death sentence. About 90 percent of cancer deaths are caused by the spread of the cancer to other parts of a patient’s body, making it more difficult to treat effectively.
So, my team has developed powerful new technology called TiDTaC (Tiny Drones to Target Cancer) designed to more effectively kill cancer cells that have spread to other parts of the body with minimal collateral damage or side effects. The technology combines microscopic nanoparticles with medicine—all packed into a tiny drone the size of a grain of rice.
Currently in the clinic, similar rice-size materials are routinely implanted in patients to guide radiotherapy treatment of cancer. We want to replace this technology that is currently used with our “smart” TiDTaC technology, which can be employed at no additional inconvenience to patients. Once in place, the TiDTaC directly delivers the microscopic particles/medicine to enhance local tumor cell death during radiotherapy and act as a beacon to call in the patient’s white blood cells. The white blood cells are then trained to kill cancer cells and can patrol the entire body, fighting cancer that has spread with great effectiveness. Current results indicate this could also help prevent the cancer from ever coming back, hence would be a real cure for cancer.
In our pre-interview conversation, I told you that I voted for your project because of my personal connection to it. My mother died of ovarian cancer at the young age of 52. What got you into Cancer research? Was it someone close…?
Dr. Wil Ngwa: Please accept my sympathies for the loss of your mother. And thank you personally for your vote. And thanks to all those who have voted for this project. It is quite an honor to receive such support.
Growing up in the village, I always wanted to do Medicine. I wrote, but failed the entrance exam into the Faculty of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences (Cuss) at the University of Yaounde, Cameroon. It was widely rumored then that you had to pay a bribe to get in, but given my Christian background, I would not even consider that. I took the responsibility for not having worked hard enough to pass the exam. I literarily cried for days, and then dusted myself off and was more determined to make a major contribution to Medicine.
Despite an apparent detour as a Physics Major at the University of Buea, and later as a Physics teacher in Presbyterian Secondary School, Mankon, I continued to believe that when God puts a dream in your heart, He sure can make it real. So I kept praying about it and working as best as I could towards this. Fast forward, one day a colleague who knew of my dream and background in Physics shared about an opening at then MD Anderson Cancer Center Orlando Florida where I subsequently trained in the department of Radiation Oncology.
Today I can look back and see that God answered my prayer far more than I could ever think of or even imagine, and those apparent detours were all worked out for good, towards a higher purpose or dream. This bigger dream is that one day cancer will be eradicated; that people of all socio-economic, racial, religious, and cultural backgrounds will have access to quality treatment. #TiDTaC #anticancerdrones.
It is a little known that scientific research, from conception to finish, is a long, sacrificial, and often lonely journey where shortcuts are dangerous and not advised. What has been the toughest challenge for TiDTaC and how far along are you from the final destination, before this ever goes to market?
Dr. Wil Ngwa: This is a great question. You know working at an institution such as Harvard gives you a lot of opportunities, but working with the very best in the business can be very demanding. The toughest challenge has been finding the right work-life balance. My priorities are God, Family, and doing my job as best as I can in that order. So I try to involve God as much as possible in my work. The first thing I do when I get to my office or lab is to pray and try to listen to that still small voice to guide me believing that God is the greatest scientist.
As to family, I have been blessed with the best wife in the world, Lydia, and three boys who together with me (her first boy) sometimes drive her crazy. Lydia is an answer to my prayers, a remarkable woman who also fears God and helps to provide the needed balance. I thank God each day for her.
As to how far we are along from the final destination, which is really the bedside of a patient, this will partly depend on funding. However, with the highly promising experimental results we already have, the funding to expedite this should follow and we anticipate at least some form of this technology to reach the bedside in the next few years.
Whereas diagnosis and treatment of cancer is arguably far ahead in the developed world, the same cannot be said of its strides in developing countries. How accessible and affordable will TiDTaC be for patients and providers in developing countries, including in your native Cameroon?
Dr. Wil Ngwa: You touched on two important points: accessibility and affordability. And both are of paramount importance to the larger dream we have. If cancer is going to be eradicated, which is our major objective, it goes without saying that patients all over the world, and especially in developing countries will need to access and afford quality care.
As our research advances we will look to partner with professionals and institutions like the Clinton Foundation, major medical companies, developing country governments, cancer advocates and others both inside and outside of the medical community to make sure that everyone that is diagnosed gets care. Actually I am already working on this. Last March, we organized a global health summit in Harvard Medical School focused on this. It brought together researchers, doctors, advocates, Africans in Diaspora, government leaders, Medical companies, and others from around the world including from Cameroon to begin addressing this.
The next summit is planned for April 2016, and I will like to extend an advance invitation to you and other African Diaspora Leaders to consider attending.
Has it occurred to you that there’s a growing incidence of Cancer patients within the Cameroonian community? If so, have you taken a stab at possible factors, particularly in North America?
Dr. Wil Ngwa: Yes indeed. The rapidly increasing cancer incidence is due to an increase in the number of risk factors including: adoption of western diets, rising tobacco consumption, HIV/AIDs, and, ironically, increased life-time expectancy as more people survive other diseases that have been a major killer in developing countries. Also, did you now that most of Africa’s 2000 languages do not have a word for cancer? This means many die from cancer and do not even know what killed them. I just talked to someone today who says 3 of his family members in Cameroon died of cancer but it was attributed to witchcraft. So there is also great need for education and awareness in the Cameroonian community, Africa as a whole and minorities especially Black and Latino populations.
In fact the lack of cancer-prevention education or awareness of the importance of early detection contributes to over a third of preventable cancer deaths, which affect minorities more. This problem is further exacerbated by a culture of silence and strong social stigma associated with cancer in Cameroonian and similar communities. The stigma means that the overwhelming majority of patients only present late with the disease, when the cancer has spread and it is more difficult to treat them. The ensuing deaths then further reinforce the stigma that cancer is essentially a death sentence. So I really want to use the opportunity to encourage people to go regularly for check-up, and be more proactive about cancer prevention.
At a secondary level, there is still a major lack of capacity to manage patients once they are diagnosed with the disease, a problem inherent in poor healthcare systems in Africa. For example, about half of Africa’s 54 countries still have no radiotherapy services typically needed in the treatment of over 50% of cancer patients. Even here in the USA, we minorities still have major access issues. I have learned of a fellow Cameroonian, Esther Njibamum, who is here in the USA fighting for her life right now because of cancer. Many have been circulating her story asking for people to read about it and support. If you don’t mind me sharing her really moving story, anyone can read about it here: www.gofundme.com/ek2gvmf4.
In a brief bio you talk of how unlikely it is that one from your humble background growing up in Africa can find himself in this position. Has this background influenced your choices, particularly when it comes to this research? If so, how?
Dr. Wil Ngwa: I would say that this research is only the latest iteration of a set of values that my parents instilled in me and my siblings as we grew up in Cameroon. My parents, both of whom were teachers (and my mom a social worker) kept us busy – with our faith and education but also developing a deep sense of caring for the less fortunate ones in the community. These values of identifying problems and getting about the business of trying to solve them have continued to undergird my work as a healthcare professional.
The research is a lonely, tiresome, process, but it is fun to know what a big difference it can have in the lives of patients and their families. The desire to pursue that research comes from asking quite basic questions: who is suffering? Why is there no help for the poor? How can I be of help? What connects us as humans? These values, which reflect the African concept of Ubuntu, inspire me and my work.
How much hope do you really hold out for TiDTaC?
Dr. Wil Ngwa: Plenty. Because it is a powerful one-two punch technology that attacks cancer cells but also empowers the human immune system to develop a “profile” for cancer cells, and then track and destroy any cancer cells that have spread. The potential breakthrough here is that cancer’s ability to spread and camouflage is undermined, boosting the chances of our immune system to successfully heal the body, as God designed it to do with minimal side effects than current technologies offer.
Tell us of the before and after of TiDTaC Research for you as an individual. What other areas of scientific research interest you?
Dr. Wil Ngwa: Before TiDTaC, my sister Janet who lives in Yaounde gave me this verse (I Corinthians 2:9), which drives me each day to try and listen to the still small voice to guide my research. After TiDTaC, I see myself doing even more to help enhance access to this treatment including for those in developing countries. That’s why in parallel to my cancer research, I am already organizing such global Health cancer summits, mentioned before to mobilize resources to enhance access towards elimination of global cancer disparities, beginning here in the USA where fellow minorities also have major access issues. I cannot forget the African saying that “When you climb the mango tree, your brethren still on the ground should also eat the ripe mangos”.
All three of you finalists are from the Brigham & Women’s Hospital. Is it any harder competing against fellow colleagues and does it make a difference that the other lead competitors are both MDs?
Dr. Wil Ngwa: It is an honor to be competing against such high profile colleagues. Actually the selection committee noted, we all deserve to be winners. Unfortunately, unlike the Nobel Prize, which can be shared, this will all come down to who can be able to get more people to vote for their project. It does not make any difference the background. So far, I have truly been overwhelmed by the magnitude of people voting to support our project: Tiny Drones to Target Cancer (TiDTaC). However, my fellow finalists are also working hard each day to get people to vote for their project. And so I have to keep working and asking for all to vote and support our project and help make the dream to eradicate cancer real #TiDTaC.
The acronym for your project, TiDTaC, reminds me of famous breath mint. But its pronunciation reminds me of the time bomb that Cancer seems to be once most patients are diagnosed.
Dr. Wil Ngwa: Yes, the acronym means Tiny Drones to Target Cancer and the pronunciation quite lovely, if I say so myself. (smile). What a pleasant irony it would be to reverse the time bomb that cancer is, so that TiDTaCs bring such healing as to be analogous to breath of fresh life? That’s our goal! That’s the dream behind the project. It is priceless.
For young people who are discouraged by hurdles they see on their path, how important is it that you win this prize?
Dr. Wil Ngwa: It is very important. I look at it this way: hurdles always come, but if you have a dream, keep believing despite the hurdles. Even when you fail sometimes, as I did with Cuss and many other times, you must pick yourself up and keep trying.
Just my being in this position is already a major inspiration to many young people including in Cameroon. For example, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Buea has encouraged all students in the university to vote, and many have emailed me telling me how inspired they are. I remember the hurdles I faced while at that university, including basic survival hurdles. Some days I would have food but no kerosene in the stove to cook it. Other days I would have kerosene but not food to cook. And despite failing exams, I often picked myself up supported by my faith to keep believing.
So far, the consistent message of young people who are voting from all over the world is that, they are already greatly inspired, and even want to vote multiple times. However, each person should, please, only vote once and then encourage those in their network, social media, etc to also vote. If they do this, we will win the Prize, and I believe it will inspire even more!
If you don’t mind it, can you tell us a little more about the Bright Futures Prize Competition which is in its 4th year? Who is eligible for it?
Dr. Wil Ngwa: The Bright Futures Prize is an annual competition organized by Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) Biomedical Research Institute at Harvard Medical School. The competition is for Biomedical researchers, and the finalists are determined by a rigorous two-step, peer-review process based on their innovative solutions to grand problems in medicine.
In this rather unique competition, the power to determine the final winner of this prestigious award is placed in the hands of those who will eventually benefit from the medical research–the public. It is also intended to generate excitement and involve the public and patients in a more meaningful way in the process of research.
Last year’s winner was an Iranian-born scientist affiliated to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, including team members all the way from India. This year, we are working to put Cameroon, and Africa on the map, with the help of everyone who has this power to vote, and can use it to shape the future of medicine. Ultimately it will benefit cancer patients worldwide.
Thank you immensely for this time and the extremely valuable information that you have shared with us. We wish you only the best of God’s blessing!
Voting ends October 7, 2015
UPDATE. October 7, 2015
— BWH Research (@BWHResearch) October 7, 2015