Spending a summer break in Switzerland may conjure images of scaling snow-covered Alps. For University of Pennsylvania student Shadrack Frimpong, however, the weeks he spent in Lausanne this past summer were directed at surmounting an even greater challenge: finding an efficient treatment for HIV/AIDS.
Frimpong, a junior biology major, pursued a research fellowship at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. More than 1,500 students apply for these positions each year; for 2013, Frimpong was one of only 23 students selected from a worldwide pool of applicants.
Born and raised in Tarkwa Breman, one of the poorest villages in the Western Region of Ghana, he has seen firsthand the devastating effects of infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS among the underserved.
His summer lab work is just one component of Frimpong’s personal mission to improve the health of residents of his native continent. He has a clear vision for a three-pronged approach to tackling the health challenges of Africa, using medicine, research and public health measures. Both in the classroom and out, he’s sought mentors and become one himself to help solve some of the health challenges faced by millions in developing nations.
“I’ve witnessed the loss of many dear lives to HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B,” Frimpong says. “That is the basis for my passion; I’ve always wanted to save lives in some way.”
His journey to Penn began after he realized that he wouldn’t be able to obtain the type of research-focused medical education he desired if he stayed in his home country. He excelled in high school while working on the streets to raise money to help support his family, and he studied hard for the SATs to blaze his path to the Ivy League.
Once he arrived in the United States, he wasted no time in making his four years count. His freshman year, he launched the nonprofit Students for a Healthy Africa, or SAHA, which brings together motivated students in both the U.S. and Africa to fundraise and work on projects to improve the lives of everyday Africans.
“I thought if I could gather African youths in American universities and African universities, those of us in the U.S. could raise funds, and our peers in African universities could be on the ground and oversee the projects,” Frimpong says. “So far, I think we’ve done some very significant work.”
With assistance from the Clinton Foundation, Davis Projects for Peace, Finstad Grants and United Nations Foundation, that work has included providing health insurance for HIV/AIDS orphans in Ghana and constructing a health clinic and potable water well in two communities in Nigeria. SAHA’s efforts have earned numerous awards and recognition, including a prize from the United Nations and multiple invitations to meet former President Bill Clinton and other world leaders at the annual Clinton Global Initiative University.
Central to Frimpong’s notion of how to help his homeland is research. During his freshman year at Penn, he worked at the Monell Chemical Senses Center with Hakan Ozdener on a project to characterize human taste cells. The work engaged his curiosity, but for his next experience he sought out a research area that fulfilled his interest in infectious disease.
Frimpong reached out to Michael Betts, an associate professor in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine whose specialty is T-cells’ response to HIV, and ended up working in Betts’ lab throughout his sophomore year. Seeing Frimpong’s keen interest in HIV, Betts encouraged him to apply to the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne program.
Soon after he was accepted into the fellowship in Lausanne, Frimpong learned that he was matched with a lab that pursued an aspect of HIV research with which he was not yet familiar: zinc finger proteins, which are tremendously abundant in the human body. Building on previous findings that demonstrated that a particular zinc finger protein can silence retroviral DNA in embryonic stem cells, Frimpong, under the direction of Didier Trono of the Laboratory of Virology and Genetics, set up an experiment to test how long and under what circumstances the repression occurs.
Though he only had two months to work on the project, Frimpong obtained intriguing results suggesting that repression continued even after the zinc finger protein was absent from the system, indicating that perhaps a co-factor recruited by the zinc finger enzyme may be responsible for retrovirus repression. The finding sparked excitement in the lab, as understanding the detailed mechanism of retrovirus repression could help scientists gain insight into new strategies for treating HIV and AIDS.
“We expected the protein to still be there, but our results indicated otherwise,” Frimpong says. “That was quite mind-blowing for us.”
Returning to Penn this semester, Frimpong has continued HIV-related research, joining Una O’Doherty’s lab in Penn Medicine’s Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. O’Doherty’s area of interest is HIV latency, the characteristic of HIV that enables some viruses to resist disease therapies and remain in the body, where they can cause disease years after treatment.
“One of the biggest challenges with HIV therapy right now is that the virus stays in a latent state that is resistant to antiviral therapy,” Frimpong explains. “So when drugs are stopped, the virus returns.”
In the O’Doherty lab, Frimpong is investigating whether enhancing HIV expression increases clearance of the “hidden” HIV. His experiments may have important implications for future clinical trials that attempt to fully eradicate the virus from the body.
“I really enjoy having Frimpong in the lab,” O’Doherty says. “He has an amazing spirit and love of science. He educates us about his hometown and reminds us that there are many HIV-infected individuals in Africa who would benefit greatly from a cure.”
With his passion for research and medicine, Frimpong believes he can achieve the most good through a career in academic medicine and plans to earn a medical or graduate immunology degree in the U.S. He’s also taken coursework in public health, believing strongly that preventive measures are key to reducing the burden of infectious disease in developing countries.
“If people are living in hygienic conditions, then malarial cases are reduced to the barest minimum,” he says. “A lot of nonprofits working in Africa to fight infectious diseases are quick to provide mosquito nets, they’re quick to provide funding for clinics to take care of patients, but they’re not quick to visit communities and educate people on the need to keep their surroundings clean so they avoid the disease. The focus on prevention is what is missing.”
Given all that he’s accomplished thus far, it’s no surprise that Frimpong’s plans for the future are ambitious. In the long term he plans to continue bolstering scientific research and medicine in Ghana, building a research facility as well as hospitals to reach the underserved. These facilities, he says, could also provide locations for hands-on training for African medical students.
His days at Penn are packed with activities which help him prepare for this future and which engage others in his vision for improved global health. In addition to his involvement in SAHA, Frimpong mentors West Philadelphia high school students through the Penn Christian Association’s Dana How Scholars Program and advises prospective and accepted students as a member of the College Cognoscenti. At the high school he attended in Ghana, he has established a club to assist students in the process of applying to U.S. universities. So far, 18 students have gotten full rides to American universities. In his rare free time, he sings in the New Spirit of Penn Gospel Choir as well as in a Ghanaian church choir in South Philadelphia.
"In my 12 years here at University of Pennsylvania, I've rarely seen a student with the kind of drive, clarity of purpose and ability to help others that Shadrack possesses,” says Roy Hamilton, Frimpong’s mentor and an assistant professor of neurology at Penn Medicine. “He is an agent of change in the making.”