Positioning the University of Ghana as a ‘Research-Intensive’ Institution on Neglected Diseases
Scientists at the West African Centre for Cell Biology and Infectious Pathogens (WACCBIP), University of Ghana, setting up a genome sequencing experiment in the laboratory.

Almost 15 years ago, when the University of Ghana established its Office of Research, Innovation, and Development, it did so with the goal of bolstering the West African nation’s research capacity. 

In the African region, where less than 0.5% of GDP is devoted to research, and a significant number of Africa’s educated is siphoned off to other countries, the UNICEF/UNDP/World Bank/WHO Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases (TDR) has spearheaded the effort to make universities like the University of Ghana research-intensive and competitive. 

TDR support for research capacity-strengthening activities at the University of Ghana focuses on enabling researchers to tackle infectious diseases of poverty through quality implementation research, the study of bridging basic science research and practice. 

This could mean examining why many patients on antiretroviral therapy drop out of treatment, or identifying barriers to TB treatment adherence – both the subject of recent publications authored by researchers at the University of Ghana.

Capacity-building works

Professor Gordon A. Awandare at TDR’s Joint Coordinating Board meeting in Geneva, 12 June 2024

“Capacity-building actually works,” remarked Professor Gordon A Awandare,  Pro Vice-Cancellor of Academic Student Affairs at the University of Ghana, at a TDR 50th anniversary event in Geneva, where he gave a detailed review of the collaboration before TDR’s Joint Coordinating Board on June 12. 

He cited, as one example, his own career trajectory. Awandare began a career in research through a TDR grant that allowed him to complete his masters training, and then got an opportunity to study for a PhD at the University of Pittsburgh while attending a  conference on malaria with support from TDR.  He returned home to the University of Ghana in 2010, founding the West African Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens (WACCBIP) in 2014. Since then, the Centre, supported by the Wellcome Trust and the World Bank, has endowed 400 fellowships and received $53 million in grants, thereby directly reducing the “brain drain” across the African region.

A decade-long partnership

The University of Ghana leads efforts to train students in implementation research. Newly enrolled master’s students during their lab induction at WACCBIP, University of Ghana.

In 2014 the University of Ghana’s School of Public Health  signed a partnership agreement with TDR to create a regional training center that leads activities in the African region for strengthening capacity in implementation research to tackle infectious diseases of poverty.

The initiative has so far trained more than 25,000 individuals across Africa, including health practitioners, decision-makers and researchers.                                    

“Looking at how far we’ve come as a training centre, it is our desire to become a centre of excellence where the annual programmes can be extended to say five years,” said Professor Phyllis Dako-Gyeke, who led the TDR-supported research training programmes at University of Ghana until her passing on 11 June. 

But the success of an almost decade-long relationship is not without its challenges. Sustainable donor support and aligned interests on research priorities remain key, she said.           

Real-time research 

Implementation researchers at UG have tackled issues from TB treatment adherence to antiretroviral therapy. Here, a community health worker conducts an interview in Obuasi, Ghana to identify barriers and facilitators for TB control.

Dr Emmanuel Asampong, coordinator of the regional training centre at the University of Ghana, notes that “the impact of implementation research on disease themes in Africa and beyond is impressive because the initiative uses  real-time research results in various contexts – such as the neglected tropical diseases programme, the national malaria programme, and the tuberculosis control programme – to provide solutions to challenges.” 

The global program, which has played a significant role in positioning University of Ghana as a research-intensive university, supports seven regional training centres across six WHO regions. With additional partners in Colombia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Senegal and Tunisia, the program develops and updates implementation research courses, provides faculty training and supports career development. 

Map of capacity building TDR regional training centers
The global program, which has played a significant role in positioning University of Ghana as a research institution, also supports NTD research in six WHO regions.

The University of Ghana also partners with TDR on a postgraduate training scheme, which provides a full academic scholarship  for master’s students. The training is specifically focused on implementation research to tackle infectious diseases of poverty. 

The list of TDR alumni across the world runs long, and the University of Ghana can claim many  public health leaders among them. 

“My postgraduate training at the University of Ghana, supported by TDR, was an invaluable catalyst in shaping my academic and professional journey,” said Dr Mbele Whiteson, Senior Resident Medical Officer at the Ministry of Health in Zambia. “I have learned to recognize the intricate interplay between health outcomes and social determinants.”

This is the third article in a series on TDR’s research capacity strengthening programme – building skills of public health researchers, implementers, health practitioners and policy-makers in the fast-developing field of implementation research for improving uptake of effective health interventions.

Sophia Samantaroy contributed to the writing and research of this story.

Image Credits: WACCBIP, TDR, African Regional Training Centre (ARTC), University of Ghana/TDR.

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