DR CHIHOMVU: Meet the only African candidate selected for AstraZeneca’s R&D challenge

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When Dr. Patience Chihomvu took a leap of faith by answering AstraZeneca’s call to enter their R&D Postdoctoral Challenge, she didn’t imagine she would be one of six finalists chosen for a fully funded postdoctoral research position.

In 2021 AstraZeneca invested $8 billion in R&D, around 21% of the Company’s turnover, in order to continue to discover and develop medicines which transform the lives of patients. To help achieve this, they launched the R&D Postdoctoral Challenge, inviting final year MD and/or PhD students and Postdoctoral Researchers to propose their own innovative ideas to accelerate drug discovery and development.

The Company has three world class strategic R&D centres including The Discovery Centre (DISC) in Cambridge in the UK, one in Gaithersburg, Maryland in the greater Washington, D.C. region of the US, and another in Gothenburg in Sweden, as well as further hubs across the world. had an opportunity to speak to the only candidate from Africa to qualify.

*The responses have been edited for clarity*

How did you hear about AstraZeneca’s R&D Postdoctoral Challenge?

On March 17, 2022, during the EXPO 2020 in Dubai, AstraZeneca (AZ) launched the global R&D Postdoctoral Challenge to accelerate solutions to complex diseases. The competition invited PhD students and postdoctoral researchers to propose innovative drug development concepts. The first round of submissions had a deadline of March 29. The video interviews for the semi-finals were held in August. They narrowed the finalists list down to six. Cátia Ferreira, Portugal; Filipa Dias Louro, Portugal; Rakhee K. Ramakrishnan, United Arab Emirates; Gonçalo Rosas da Silva, Portugal; Mark Waterhouse, UK; and I Patience Chihomvu, Zimbabwe were among the finalists.

I had heard about the challenge through Dr Cano Ssemakalu on May 5, but I dismissed it because it seemed beyond my grasp. I spotted the link on LinkedIn again. On May 25, I submitted my project. Later, Allison Darke and Alice Beynon from the AZ team emailed me. They mentioned that I am moving forward to the SEMI finals, where we were to submit video interviews. My mentors were Kevin Woollard from Cambridge, Magnus Johannsen and Anneli Nordqvist from Gothenburg. I did my interview in late August. Then on September 14, I received a life-changing email from AZ stating that my project made it to the finals. I was invited to Gothenburg, Sweden, to pitch my proposal with the other five finalists in front of expert judges. Believe it or not we were selected as winners because all the projects were excellent and unique in their own right.

Tell us about your research and the impact?

My research will focus on drug discovery using the medicinal herb Zumbani, mutswane, umsutane (Swati); inzinziniba (Xhosa); umsuzwane, umswazi (Zulu), also called “lemon bush” or “fever tree. Lippia javanica is one of the essential herbs in Southern Africa because it treats a variety of ailments such as chest pains, bronchitis, asthma, wounds, fevers, and malaria. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it became more popular because of its ability to treat the disease. My project aims to find lead compounds that reduce inflammation. My project will use methods from many fields, such as phytochemistry, biology, computational, and molecular science.

What attracted you to this research field?

I realised the potential of phytochemical compounds when my dad was diagnosed with COVID-19 in 2021 and he used medicinal herbs to get rid of the COVID-19 symptoms. Thus, I hope to develop drugs to treat inflammatory respiratory diseases such asthma, bronchitis, and post-COVID inflammation.

What does this fellowship mean for you? From 6 finalists you are the only one from Africa

Winning this postdoctoral challenge is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. The fact that AZ provided this chance has opened doors for me that I never imagined were available. I’ve met fantastic people I never expected to meet, and I’ll be working with world-renowned scientists. I now have access to AZ’s expertise and technologies to assist me in making my ideas a reality. I’m going with an open heart and an open mind, wanting to learn and advance in my scientific activities. I am honoured and humbled to represent the African continent and aim to make us proud.

Which research centre are you most looking forward to – Cambridge, UK, Gaithersburg, US or Gothenburg, Sweden?

I will be in Gothenburg, Sweden, the R&D facility which hosted the finalists. I was most impressed by the people, culture, and technology at AZ. AZ promotes an open culture rather than a competitive one. Therefore, collaborations are a significant driver of success in the organisation. I met scientists from all over the world and learned from each of them as we interacted.

I am looking forward to working with my supervisors, all of whom are in Gothenburg, except one in Cambridge, UK.

What message of encouragement do you have for anyone who may want to pursue the same path as you, particularly women and young girls

I don’t want you to sell yourself short. I was about to miss out on a life-changing opportunity because I disqualified myself before entering the challenge. I wish to inspire everyone, especially the women out there. Your dreams are valid; pursue them and fight for them. I understand that life can throw us terrible situations but retain faith and focus on what you want to be. Believe that God is at work behind the scenes.

About Dr. Chihomvu

Dr. Patience Chihomvu obtained her BSc (Hons) at the National University of Science and Technology in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. She began working as a Food Science and Nutrition Lecturer following her graduation and supervised Higher National Diploma students on their final year projects. Dr. Chihomvu applied for her master’s degree in research at the Vaal University of Technology in 2013. She has been recognised with multiple awards for her research, including the Vaal University of Technology Masters Research Award, the Vaal University of Technology Doctorate Research Award and the S & F Innovation Doctoral Awards – National Research Foundation. Dr. Chihomvu continues to focus her research on microbiology, molecular biology, and tissue culture and currently lectures at the Vaal University of Technology in South Africa.