A 20-year-old female scientist from Zimbabwe is already on a path to use viruses that infect bacteria to fight some of sub-Saharan Africa’s deadliest infectious diseases.
According to World Health Organisation statistics, the bacterial disease tuberculosis (TB) is the leading cause of death globally from infectious disease, with over a quarter of TB deaths occurring in Africa.
Rutendo Kahari is a student at Baylor University and a budding biomedical researcher interested in bacteriophages (viruses that whose hosts are bacteria) and genetic engineering as potential tools for fighting TB and other infectious diseases.
“I am on a mission to bring the power of emerging biotech to address the burden of diseases in my region and to promote health equity across Africa, all inspired by my experience with my late father, who was chronically ill for ten years and passed away just before my 17th birthday,” she says.
Recent studies have focused on phage-based treatments as a solution to treating Multidrug-Resistant Tuberculosis (MDR TB). After hearing a podcast on bacteriophages, Kahari delved into how phages could potentially combat the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
“I was intrigued by the idea of using viruses to control populations of pathogenic bacteria,” she says.
In 2021, Kahari presented her research on “Fighting Multidrug-Resistant Tuberculosis with Phage Therapy.” at MIT’s Global Community Bio Summit 5.0 and also participated in Future Earth Academy, a global virtual biotechnology beta program involving Kahari and 12 other hand-picked youths under the guidance of Dr. Jennifer Jones, Ph.D.
“This program introduced me to biotechnology tools that have the potential to revolutionize Africa’s healthcare system and practicing scientists,” Kahari says.
In 2023, Kahari also undertook an internship in New York City, with Chai Ventures, a VC fund investing in female-led health and technology companies; and the Global Citizen Year young leaders program in Cape Town, South Africa.
“Rutendo has already impacted her country: She teaches coding to children in her town, she has introduced her VR tech to others in her community,” Dr Jones says, adding that Kahari also inspiring others from her region to pursue higher goals.