Research royalty

Portia Mlilo

29-year-old Masego Julia Gaorekwe was recently appointed Western Institutional Review Board (WIRB) reviewer.

The brainy Mahalapye-born beauty, a Research Ethics Assistant at the University of Botswana (UB), is the first Motswana to make it onto the prestigious 51-year-old board.

She was selected after impressing on the organisation’s fellowship programme in America.

WIRB’s role is to protect the rights and welfare of the Human Research Subject.

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It offers research review services for more than 400 institutions, including contract research organisations, coordinating groups and individual investigators around the world.

It has been designed for global research professionals who intend to establish or improve Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) in their home countries.

The Voice’s Portia Mlilo sat down with Gaorekwe to discuss her career journey and her historic appointment to the international review body.

Q. What does being part of the Institutional Review Board mean to you?

A. This is the biggest achievement ever! People from Botswana have attended the programme before and none of them was appointed so I am the first Motswana to be part of the board.

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Some of the products we see in the markets, be it vaccines, medical equipment and others have been reviewed by this board.

What it means is that when there is protocol or research to be done in Botswana I will be given the responsibility to review it because it’s done in my country.

I am an adviser and advocate for my country looking at our regulations and culture.

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This is good for my professional growth and also for my employer and country’s recognition.

Q. How long did it take you to complete the programme?

A. For three months we were doing theory and had presentations and tests to write afterwards.

I did well and they accepted me to be a board member.

It was a tough journey and at some point I thought of quitting but I had to be patient for my nation.

Coming from a Social Science background and now venturing into the medical background was a transition.

What they do is they deal with protocol from the biggest medical companies in the world so they believe that if you are an ethics person you can review any research proposal.

I managed because they are advanced and have the review templates.

The difficult thing is in America, each state has its own laws so you need to understand that before you review their protocol unlike here where we have one common law.

It was a big challenge and was extra work because I had to learn what each state says regarding what is in the research proposal.

I was called for interview after the programme and a week later I received a letter of appointment.

Q. What is WIRB’s mandate?

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A. We review clinical trials and also do trainings.

It has about 10 panels and I sit on five that I can be able to vote.

We review oncology cancer studies and medical devices among others.

I am working on a proposal to have a UB board that reviews medical devices.

Q. How will Botswana benefit from your appointment, especially in the health sector?

A. I believe that we have potential in so many things because already we train Ministry of Health and Wellness ethics board members.

What I have realised is that we only train them on certain type of areas forgetting that medical research is very broad.

Today, if you want to have a knowledge-based economy you have to develop certain things and come up with devices.

That is innovation. We need people who can review that device research proposal so that you can make proper decisions.

I think our country needs to invest in research and have stronger ethical bodies like other countries.

When you look at the policies we have here they are just too silent on so many things.

We don’t even have anything that talks about medical devices.

I don’t think we have a Health Research Bill and by the time it comes, with research changing all the time, it will be outdated.

Q. Why is it important for Botswana to have Health Research Bill?

A. People come here for so many things and it is very painful because we still refer to the Anthropological Research Act of 1971.

Somebody is only charged P400 for research misconduct and whatever they have, even if it’s a sample – it is millions of money that Botswana is losing!

This is one thing our country should really look into.

We have a research application which is just a guideline whereas in some countries they have a contract that binds you.

Research royalty
HONOURED: Masego Gaorekwe receiving International Review Board award

In terms of ethics, what we lack is to ensure there is proper conduct of research because you cannot only give people permits without going back and auditing.

Q. How do you know that they are doing what they had applied to research on when you are not monitoring?

A. What does your role entail as a Research Ethics Assistant at UB?

I train staff, students and people from outside on research ethics and compliance.

I used to conduct undergraduate proposals in their review and liaise between the government and UB in terms of processing their payments.

I am now mostly doing social behavioral studies for Masters and PhD students.

Q. Why is it important to have researchers?

A. It is very vital. Now we have ARV tablets out of research, the shift in HIV treatment from when it started, you can see there are lots of positives.

It is not only in terms of health but in business, policy making and other areas.

Right now we need researchers to find out how we can diversify the economy, which models can work here and not a situation where we are just bombarded with programmes that we never tested anywhere.

We need a Ministry or Research Council that focuses on the research not relying on Public Relations Office that know nothing about ethics and research.

In South Africa they have a Research Council and that is where most research review laws are made.

Their innovation is being funded and embraced by the people.

When you come to Botswana you will be sent from one Ministry to the other not knowing where to get help!

Q. So what makes a good researcher?

A. You need to be very ethical.

You also have to read books.

There is what we call professional ethical codes and in research we have principles that you need to abide by.

When you conduct a study, know that it is for the benefit of the community, you don’t have hidden agendas and respect participants, share the outcomes.

People confuse research with therapeutic misconception where you participate in a study and you are not told it is research.

We need to raise awareness on that issue.

Q. What are your future plans as far as your career is concerned?

A. I want to be more into regulation and compliance, that is where I see a lot of irregularities.

I should be able to advise or help draft some of the regulations for this country in terms of research.

That is where my career is going. I also have interest in traditional medicines in terms of research, which currently we do not have.

We have the potential to produce what is ours.

We do not want to cry when researchers from other countries come here and discover a tree that can cure certain diseases when we are not doing it!

We need people who can review our traditional medicines and make sure they comply locally and internationally.

Q. I remember there was lady in Palapye who said she knows a herb that can cure HIV/AIDS. Why has it taken so long to have traditional medicines researched?

A. (Laughing) I wouldn’t want to talk about the Palapye herbalist but in general when it comes to traditional medicines it is a complex field.

When you look at the Chinese medicines they do research and work with universities to test their products.

I do not know whether it is a problem with our herbalists that they don’t want to reveal the tree they make their herbs from.

They are very secretive, especially when it comes to traditional knowledge.

In Africa it is difficult because we also believe in spiritual things and you cannot question it.

That is now where the problem is.

We need evidence, we need to conduct some tests.

Q. If it works why don’t you commercialise it and diversify the economy?

A. And finally, Thank God It’s Friday, what are your plans for the weekend?

I will be preparing for my trip to Pretoria, South Africa.

I will be attending EU meeting and Science Fair.

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