Originally from Nigeria, Jumai Abioye has come to Glasgow to study for a PhD in biomedical engineering. She’s conducting the basic research that could create a tool capable of cutting viruses such as HIV out of the genome.
When she’s not building tools in a lab, she’s building a company: the Initiative for the Advancement of Education in Africa (IAE Africa); with a vision of improving the quality of education in her home continent. The method: to promote studying STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in a way that can be applied in an African context – where there may not be reliable access to electricity or an internet connection, for example.
“My work is in genome editing, which is getting into mainstream medicine now. If someone has cancer, it might be that there is a specific sequence in their genome that is responsible for that, providing the information that is causing the cells to grow.
It's about going into the genome and saying: can we just cut it out? Or can we replace it with a totally different sequence?
There are a lot of tools that people are using to do that. We don't think they're good enough. That's why we're making a new tool, using enzymes called recombinases.
What they do is they find a particular sequence of DNA and they cut it, and then they bring the two sides and they join them back together. My research is a systematic process of attempting to design something new by looking at all of the properties of the recombinases.
They are so specific. They're locked to what they do. I’m trying to discover if I can unlock that and then lock them into something different that is useful to us. I do that with HIV. If we can cut out HIV that is already in the genome, and get an intact genome back, then hopefully the virus would die off. It becomes a random thing that a cell can get rid of by itself.
This is a field that needs tools. We do the bench research of creating those tools. And the way it works with research, and with a PhD, is that you create something and somebody else comes in and makes it better. Then someone else comes in and makes that better. You realise that you're not the messiah who's going to save the field. You contribute your part.
So, success would be getting this to a fairly good place for somebody else, or other groups, to come in and take it forward. Some other people who do clinical research might want to push it forward and say, can we get this tool into clinical trials? People are doing clinical trials with genomic editing tools across the world. Maybe 10 years down the line I will be able to see that and think: oh, I helped create that. I did something to make that happen.
I studied microbiology at university in Nigeria. A lot of people that I graduated with, they don't have jobs. There are no jobs for people to feed into. So with IAE Africa, my goal is to take STEM education and to apply it in an African context. Because our problem is teaching knowledge where it doesn’t fit.