Scientist wins Royal Society award

Published: 4 November 2008

A biomedical researcher working with the University of Glasgow has been awarded one of the world’s most prestigious prizes in science.

A biomedical researcher working with the University of Glasgow has been awarded one of the world’s most prestigious prizes in science.

Dr Enock Matovu was presented with the Royal Society Pfizer Award for his groundbreaking work into sleeping sickness – a disease which kills thousands of Africans every year.

Dr Matovu, a Ugandan biomedical scientist, also receives an honorary research fellow position from the University of Glasgow marking his extraordinary contribution to the field.
The Pfizer Award is a highly sought after academic accolade and has been likened to the Nobel Prize for science and discovery.

The scientist and collaborator with the university’s Faculty of Biomedical and Life Sciences collected the award at a ceremony in London hosted by the Royal Society, the national academy of science for the UK and Commonwealth.

His seminal discovery of how drug resistance operates in the parasite, Trypanosoma brucei, which causes sleeping sickness, changed the course of how the disease is treated. As a result of his findings, the Ugandan authorities ordered a change in drug legislation saving thousands of patients.

Professor Lorna Casselton, Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society, said: "Dr Motavu’s work has made a real difference to hundreds of African lives. We are delighted to award him this grant thanks to generous funding from Pfizer and hope that it will help him to build upon the already huge impact his work has had in saving lives.”

Sir Muir Russell, Principal of the University of Glasgow, described Dr Matovu as one of the university’s key scientific partners. On Thursday night (Nov 6th), the Principal is to host a dinner in Dr Matovu’s honour after he has presented his latest research topics and findings to an audience of leading specialists.

Sir Muir added: “I would like to congratulate Dr Matovu on his Royal Society award. Dr Matovu is one of Africa’s brightest and most talented scientists. He has worked with our faculties of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical and Life Sciences for the past eight years. On the back of this discovery, he has become a major international player in the fight against sleeping sickness.”

Mike Barrett, Professor of Biochemical Parasitology at the University of Glasgow, has worked with Dr Matovu, for a number of years.

Professor Barrett said: “Dr Matovu’s greatest strength lies in his ability to link hard-core scientific research to the onfield situation. He is undoubtedly one of Africa's research stars.

“There are only two drugs used to treat sleeping sickness. Melarosprol is so toxic it kills 5% of patients - regardless of the disease. However, thanks to Dr Matovu's research, the Ugandan National Trypanosomiasis Programme replaced the arsenic based Melarsoprol with Eflornithine, a less toxic drug, in areas where Dr Matovu had identified the presence of resistant parasites.”

Dr Matovu and Professor Barrett's work is part of the University of Glasgow's Centre for International Development. The centre draws together the unviersity's expertise in medicine, veterinary medicine, environmental management, development economics and education to bring benefit to projects in the developing world.

The Royal Society award comes with a cheque for £65,000 which Dr Matovu says he intends to use, in part, for further research in his native Uganda.

Sleeping sickness is widely recognised as one of Africa’s neglected diseases. Endemic in Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Sudan the parasite is transmitted by the tsetse fly. If untreated, the trypanosome crosses the blood-brain barrier inducing confusion, reduced coordination and a reversal to the sleep cycle – where the disease gets its name.

Dr Matovu successfully created genetically modifed trypanosomes lacking in an enzyme suspected to be involved in uptake of several classes of drug used against trypanosomes. The resulting data enabled researchers to understand how trypanosomes become resistant to drugs, and some cases cross-resistant.

Dr Matovu said he was delighted to receive both the award and the fellowship at the University of Glasgow.

He said: "I am greatly honoured and privileged to have been selected for the Pfizer award. It is reassuring that someone out there recognizes my humble contribution to our understanding of the mechanisms of drug resistance in African trypanosomiasis that plagues our rural poor comunities. I am, however, equally excited about the University of Glasgow’s decision to appoint me an Honorary Research Fellow. This will strengthen my career development by offering me access to various services at the University."

For more information, contact Eleanor Cowie in the University of Glasgow Media Relations Office on 0141 330 3683 or email

First published: 4 November 2008