The University of Makeni (UNIMAK) Infectious Diseases Research Laboratory was established as a collaboration between the University of Makeni, Sierra Leone, and the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. The project was facilitated by funding from the Wellcome Trust to enable rapid sequencing of Ebola virus genomes during the recent Ebola virus disease epidemic in Sierra Leone. During the epidemic, the laboratory was established at the Mateneh Ebola Treatment Centre, but was relocated to UNIMAK near the end of the epidemic. The laboratory now forms an integral part of the Makeni Biomedical and Biotechnology Research Platform, which was developed following the recent Ebola Virus outbreak in West Africa.
The extent of the outbreak and the response illustrated the limited capacity of Sierra Leone to respond to such an emergency without significant external investment and involvement of international NGOs. The research centre is designed to function as both a research and training platform, and is intended as a centre for Sierra Leone to continue building on recent advances in capacity and knowledge, to provide trained scientists and technicians who can rapidly respond should such a crisis emerge, and to provide a world-class research facility for both national and international researchers.
Within the UNIMAK laboratory, research scientists and students are trained in the latest research and laboratory techniques, as well providing a platform for extensive research projects throughout Sierra Leone. The laboratory contains state-of-the-art laboratory equipment, including the Ion Torrent ® PGM and Ion Chef® Next Generation Sequencing platform (Thermo Scientific), multiple real-time (Roche, Thermo Scientific) and standard PCR machines, biological safety hoods (level 1 and 2), and facilities for ELISA experiments. Equipment comes from a range of sources, including funding from Universities of Cambridge and Makeni, as well as generous donations from local and international NGOs. In collaboration with the Holy Spirit Molecular Biology and Immunology laboratory, researchers can also access to flow cytometry and biological safety level 3 facilities.
The UNIMAK laboratory currently forms an integral part of the Ebola Outbreak Sequencing Service, in collaboration with government and non-governmental authorities, providing critical sequencing and phylogenetic information on new cases of infection, assisting with tracing the source of new infections. Current projects are focused on investigating diseases beyond Ebola, including rare and imported pathogens that may mimic the symptoms of Ebola Virus infection. In addition, more common infections are being studied at the centre, with the aim of monitoring the impact of pathogens on the community in Sierra Leone.
In the medium term, the Centre will form a part of the newly established University of Makeni Public Health Faculty. The faculty will offer Diplomas and Bachelors Degrees in Public Health, Epidemiology, Laboratory Skills and Pharmacology. The long-term goal of the project is to provide the University of Makeni, and Sierra Leone more broadly, with a world-class research and teaching facility, with local expertise that can support the prevention or containment of future disease outbreaks.