Dr Brenda Okech - Tanzania

Mentoring organization: GSK Biologicals

Brenda Okech, reviewing data from a clinical study

Brenda Okech entered the world in what chess players would call a compromised position. Born in Kampala, Uganda in the spring of 1972, she started life in a city on edge. The economy was in free fall, refugees were streaming out by the thousands, and with the recent rise to power of the murderous military dictator Idi Amin, things were soon to take a turn for the worse. When they did, Okech fled with her parents for the safety of exile, moving first to Kenya, then to Tanzania, and finally, after five long years, back home to Kampala, where a passion for science first took hold. “I loved it from the word go,” she says, crediting a primary school teacher for making the subject “exciting” and her parents, who were, she says, “firm believers in education.”

Now an immunologist at the African Malaria Network Trust (AMANET), Okech’s career has been a story of improbable success and rare circularity. And nothing has done more to advance it, she says, than the TDR Clinical R&D Career Development Fellowship Programme (CDF). “That was, I would say, a life-changing experience,” she recalls. “It was like getting your foot in a very big door. It opens up so many new opportunities.”

“That was, I would say, a life-changing experience. It was like getting your foot in a very big door. It opens up so many new opportunities. ”

Dr Brenda Okech

TDR “At that time, GSK was working on a candidate vaccine for malaria,” recalls Fabio Zicker, TDR’s Research Coordinator, who together with Steve Wayling helped launch the programme with Dr Nadia Tornieporth, then Vice President of Clinical Development in the Department of Prophylactic Vaccines at GSK. “When you’re developing any new vaccine, it requires a lot of rigor in terms of planning, documentation and safety and surveillance of the patient population,” he says. “So GSK wanted people there who could facilitate the process in developing countries and bring the perspective from the field to the company – scientists trained to the highest standards of clinical conduct.”

“The things that I learned at GSK I apply every day at AMANET,” says Okech, who works with the latter as a project manager on a multi-center phase IIb trial of the GMZ2 malaria vaccine currently underway in Uganda and three other countries. “I’m also still in touch with my contacts there,” she adds, including her mentor at GSK Dr Opokua Ofori-Anyinam, who has been involved in the programme since its inception and has mentored no fewer than ten Fellows. “She’s like a mother figure to us,” says Okech. “She always lets us know if she hears of something that could help us.”