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Bridging Continents

Research & Inquiry

African scientists convene at Smith to conquer river blindness.

Scientists gather in the lab of Professor Steven Williams (back row, third from right).

Photograph by Alexander MacDougall


Published September 26, 2023

Over the summer, Ford Hall served as a meeting place for research scientists from across sub-Saharan Africa who came to Northampton in hopes of protecting their communities from one of the continent’s most prevalent infectious diseases.

The scientists arrived on campus with the goal of being trained to combat onchocerciasis. More commonly known as river blindness, onchocerciasis is a parasitic disease that affects millions of people worldwide, mostly in Africa. The disease is spread through black flies, and humans afflicted with it can develop severe irritation of the skin, loss of vision, and even permanent blindness.

Drug treatments exist, but there is no cure. However, thanks to research done at the lab of Steven Williams, Gates Professor of Biological Sciences, a new diagnostic test has been developed that can easily determine whether river blindness is widespread in a given area.

The new test detects genetic material using polymerase chain reaction (PCR)—the same method used in some COVID-19 tests. By screening large samples of black flies from a particular area, scientists can estimate how many are carrying the parasite that causes river blindness and, by extension, whether the disease is prevalent in people living in the region.

The test, developed by Williams and research associate Mary Doherty, drew the attention of organizations including the U.S. Agency for International Development, The Task Force for Global Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization (WHO), the latter of which asked whether Smith could help instruct African scientists in the testing method.

“The idea was to go to individual labs all over Africa and train people,” Williams says. “But then I had this crazy idea: Why don’t we bring them all here?”

In June, 16 scientists from eight African countries gathered at Smith to learn how to administer the test. They intend to bring the skills they gained at the college back to their home countries, understanding that a community with good physical health is necessary for good economic health.

“We used to do an older technique back home, but this is more powerful, with better output,” says Yaya Coulibaly, who runs a research lab in Mali to fight infectious diseases. “We can process several thousands of samples a day, and we have a system of control that allows us to be very sure that the action worked or not.”

Williams says he hopes to travel to Africa over the next two years to provide further instruction. The plan, he says, is to bring the total number of African countries with scientists trained to use the test to between 10 and 20.

“The idea is if it’s successful in the first few countries,” he says, “then WHO will officially adopt this as sort of the standard for Africa.”

A version of this story first appeared in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.