Understanding virus variants
Photos by Ashley Barnas April 01, 2021
Doctoral student works with UD researcher to learn more about global variants of human papillomavirus
When the University of Delaware campus shut down in March 2020, at the start of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the ordeal upended much of the research underway by faculty and students. For Ngozi Dom-Chima, a doctoral student in the Department of Medical and Molecular Sciences, studying global variants in the human papillomavirus (HPV), it meant no more wet-bench experiments — the heart of her research under Professor Sam Biswas, in whose lab researchers study the molecular mechanisms of HPV. Dom-Chima’s two-year efforts to develop HPV-related collaborations with universities and hospitals in Nigeria and Brazil also went on hiatus as the impact of the coronavirus exploded around the world.
Rather than hitting the brakes on her research entirely, Dom-Chima used the time out of the lab to complete a systematic review of HPV’s prevalence in Brazil. She discovered differences in prevalence rates across Brazil’s states. A year later, she is finishing up an article based on her findings.
She returned to the lab in October, and she’s also back to making more global connections, even if it means waking up at 2 a.m. to get in touch with researchers at the International HPV Reference Center in Stockholm, Sweden.
“It takes time for international collaborators to say, ‘OK, we can do this together,’ ” said Dom-Chima, who is pursuing her doctorate in medical sciences. “Some people are kind of skeptical if they haven’t met in person. I make them comfortable so they know our work is for real.”
Understanding HPV variants
HPV is a group of viruses spread through intimate skin-to-skin contact. Most infections go away by themselves within a couple of years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but infections from some strains, or variants, can last longer and lead to cancer. There are more than 100 identified variants of the virus, but the HPV vaccine protects against just nine — the most predominant strains in the United States, but not the rest of the world.
“We see that in different countries, they do have HPV types that are prevalent and not covered in the vaccine,” Dom-Chima said. “Our goal is to show that the vaccine should be geographically specific and also show that HPV prevalence is not universal. There are geographical specificities to it.”
In addition to scientists from Nigeria, Brazil and Sweden, Dom-Chima also is working with researchers in Haiti — as well as closer to home, at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.
“She has the natural ability to work with people,” Biswas said. “Her biggest strength is to be able to handle difficult situations and people very effectively and come out on top. She works with a virus that is a menace worldwide and her global experience adds a new outlook to this health problem.”
Esther Biswas-Fiss, professor and chairperson of the Department of Medical and Molecular Sciences in the College of Health Sciences, said Dom-Chima’s research has the potential to play an important role in reducing the impact of HPV globally.
“Since HPV vaccines are variant specific, this information is critical,” Biswas-Fiss said. “In order for a vaccine to be effective, it needs to target the HPV variants that are present in that region.”
In another part of Dom-Chima’s doctoral project, she and Sam Biswas are working to develop a rapid PCR-based test to detect all HPV variants in patient samples. Such broad spectrum tests are not currently available.
Research with a global approach
It was an interest in pursuing research with a multidisciplinary approach that drew Dom-Chima to the University of Delaware after her graduation from Morgan State University with a degree in medical laboratory science. What she found was a program and mentorship that allowed her to explore research through a global lens.
“That is the beauty of the program, putting your spin on it,” said Dom-Chima, who hopes to be a professor after her doctorate is completed. “Not everybody has to do basic science research. You can take it and make it your own, and if I didn’t have that flexibility, I don’t think I would be in this research because it really incorporates global studies with molecular science.”
Biswas-Fiss said Dom-Chima’s dedication, perseverance and ability to stay calm in difficult situations are the kind of qualities any good researcher needs to be successful in their career. They also make her a role model for undergraduate and graduate students in the department, particularly those Dom-Chima works with as part of a diversity outreach effort to attract medical lab science and biotechnology students from traditionally underrepresented groups.
She also was a founding member of the Delaware chapter of Graduate Women in Science (GWIS) and, until recently, served on its executive board. The organization, open to graduates, undergraduates and science teachers, offers social events, mentoring and other outreach opportunities.
Dom-Chima said it’s important for students to realize they can have a life outside the lab. “When we all meet for seminars, we are always talking about our research, but what the GWIS wants to bring to this is research plus a chance to relax,” said Dom-Chima, who has an infant daughter. “Sometimes, we just come and talk about ourselves and about how we're doing. Some people spend all their time in the lab. We want them to see there is more.”