Tanzanian GloCal alumna continues to tackle Sickle Cell Disease

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Photo source: K15 Photos

A recent recipient of an Emerging Global Leader Award (K43) from the National Institutes for Health Fogarty International Center, Dr. Siana Nyka Mtatiro is continuing her vision of building capacity for genetic studies in Tanzania.

Dr. Siana Nyka Mtatiro

As a GloCal fellow in 2016-2017, Mtatiro conducted a detailed investigation of genetic patterns in Tanzanian sickle cell disease patients with extreme fetal hemoglobin levels.

Globally, sickle cell disease (SCD) is a leading cause of childhood mortality, contributing to 6.4% of under-five deaths in Africa. Tanzania is the fourth highest birth prevalence of SCD, with 8,000-11,000 infants are affected annually.

SCD causes red blood cells, normally round, to form more like crescent moons. While round red blood cells can move easily through the blood vessels, sickle-shaped cells can result in blood clots, as defined by the World Health Organization.

Mtatiro pursued her PhD with research focused on determining what genetic factors influence the levels of fetal hemoglobin in Tanzanians with SCD. This study built a platform to pursue further research on SCD phenotypes in hopes of identifying interventions and improving care. 

Mtatiro brought her commitment and expertise in genetic studies to the GloCal Health Fellowship. Through GloCal, Mtatiro was able to continue her work on the genetics of fetal hemoglobin. Her project centered on understanding the genetic patterns in people with SCD who exhibit extreme levels of fetal hemoglobin (HbF).

“For the first time in Tanzania, I was able to conduct a follow-up study utilizing next-generation sequencing, which generated valuable data on both known and novel variants and pathways associated with fetal hemoglobin in SCD,” said Mtatiro.

Dr. Siana Nyka Mtatiro analyzing sequence
data with bioinformatician

Mentorship plays a strong role in each GloCal fellow’s project. In Mtatiro’s case, she worked closely with her primary mentor, Dr. Karin Gaensler, a faculty member in the division of hematology and oncology at the University of California, San Francisco. “She has experience in genomics of beta globin regulation, an important aspect of genetics of fetal hemoglobin, and is currently working to develop novel approaches for treating blood disorders caused by a specific gene mutation,” said Mtatiro of Gaensler.

The GloCal Fellowship also pairs fellows with an in-country mentor. Mtatiro worked alongside Dr. Julie Makani, head of the department of hematology and blood transfusion at Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences (MUHAS). Professor Makani is also mentoring Mtatiro in the American Society of Hematology Global Research Award and the Emerging Global Leader Award (K43).

The mentorship Mtatiro received as part of the GloCal Fellowship laid a strong foundation for her current work. “I have been involved in different sickle cell disease projects and initiatives within Tanzania as well as regional projects within Africa such as Sickle Pan-African Research Consortium (SPARCO) and SickleGenAfrica.”

SPARCO is a multinational consortium which is coordinated from a hub at MUHAS in Dar es Salaam. This research consortium aims to develop research capacity for SCD through a multidimensional approach which addresses infrastructure, education and training, provision of longitudinal research data and the translation of research into practice.

In addition to the research component of the GloCal Fellowship, Mtatiro explained, “this was the first project that allowed me to start learning about project management: finances, administration, identifying a project team, collaborators and reporting.” Career development is one of the core components of the GloCal Fellowship.  

Dr. Siana Nyka Mtatiro lecturing at Dar es Salaam University
College of Education

With a career dedicated to expanding the capacity for genetic studies in Tanzania, Mtatiro continues to be an active proponent in addressing the high birth prevalence of SCD. Asked for a transformative career highlight, she said: “I was a part of the team, at the time a laboratory manager, where the first baby was diagnosed with sickle cell disease through the Newborn Screening Program in Tanzania.”

Read Mtatiro’s latest publication, Newborn screening for sickle cell disease: an innovative pilot program to improve child survival in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in International Health.

Siana Nkya Mtatiro
Siana Nyka Mtatiro, MSc, PhD
GloCal Health Fellowship 2016-2017 Cohort