By Megan Sayles, AFRO Business Writer,
Report for America Corps Member

Dr. Catherine Kibirige was a teenager when she decided her career would center on HIV research. 

Her parents were natives of Uganda, but she was born in Kenya after they were exiled during the Ugandan Civil War. Eventually, her father got a job in London as an engineer, and he sent for Kibirige and her sister to come join him. 

While in secondary school, Kibirige learned that Uganda had been severely hit by HIV and AIDS. The first cases of HIV in Africa were recorded and characterized in the Rakai District, a community in the central region of Uganda.  

“We’d just come out of a civil war, so it was very devastating. On top of all the issues with the civil war, there’d been famine, there’d been desolation and then we had HIV,” said Kibirige. “It really had a huge impact on us as a nation and I lost a lot of close relatives. I knew I wanted to be involved in HIV research.” 

After college, Kibirige traveled to Uganda to volunteer with the Ministry of Health and work in the Rakai Health Sciences Program, a collaboration between researchers at Makerere, Columbia, Johns Hopkins Universities and the Division of Intramural Research at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. 

She was offered a job on a study of HIV, AIDS and related STDs just a few months after she started volunteering. Two years into the position, she was sponsored to come to the United States to obtain her doctorate of philosophy from the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. 

Her first post-doctoral fellowship was with the U.S. Military’s HIV Research Program, which at the time was administering a vaccine trial in Thailand. The trial was using an assay, a lab test used to find and measure the amount of a specific substance, that did not detect all of the circulating HIV subtypes.

Kibirige redeveloped the assay so it would be ultra-sensitive and better cover HIV subtypes and variants. 

She then went back to Johns Hopkins University for a second post-doctoral fellowship to further optimize the assays and broaden their utility. 

Now, Kibirige is expanding on her work as a research associate at Imperial College London in the Human Immunology Laboratory. She maintains a provisional patent on the assay she developed. 

Her hope is to commercialize her assay in Uganda to help Africa move away from donor dependence. 

“We need to get to the point now where we’re actually making our own reagents, doing our own vaccine research and not having to import everything. One of the things that really stood out to me when I worked for Rakai is everything is imported, even the paper towels and [cotton] swabs.” 

In Uganda those with HIV face significant barriers to accessing treatment monitoring, leading to a surge in drug resistance. District hospitals have to send blood samples to the national HIV testing lab in Kampala, the country’s capital. Results can get lost, and even if they don’t, they take months to get back to the district hospitals. 

Currently, Kibirige is in negotiations to transfer her assay’s manufacturing process to Uganda. She intends for her assay to be a low-cost, ambient-temperature and prolonged-shelf life alternative to viral load testing. 

She’s also in the early stages of establishing a startup that will streamline the process of transporting the assays for use in resource-limited areas in Uganda.

“I just want to encourage women- especially women in science and technology- to really pursue their dreams, stick to whatever vision they have and just be open to exploring different kinds of avenues,” said Dr. Kibirige. 

“Never give up.”

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