Please tell us about yourself

Research Fellow at the Natural Products Institute at The University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, Dr Simone Badal McCreath is one of five women chemists worldwide to be honoured with the Elsevier Foundation Awards for Early Career Women Scientists in the Developing World, for research that looks to nature for ways to address cancer and other medical problems.

Simone Badal McCreath’s work covers the screening of Jamaican natural and synthetic compounds for potential anti-cancer and cancer-preventive properties.

Jamaica is blessed with sun, sea, sand and a wealth of natural resources — it ranks fifth among the world’s islands in terms of endemic species.

“That means these products, these plants are nowhere else,” says Simone Badal McCreath, a research fellow in the Department of Basic Medical Sciences at the University of the West Indies in Mona, Jamaica. “Which means we are sitting on novel compounds that, once assessed against a wide array of biological activities, could help to make products that can treat Huntington’s disease or neurological disorders, for example.”

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How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?

Dr Badal-McCreath has no doubt that her journey to becoming a top-ranked scientist was divinely ordained. Her intention throughout high school was to become a doctor, but then she was unable to do physics in CXC and decided to apply to do pure and applied sciences at the University of the West Indies (UWI) first in order to matriculate into medicine. However, she had a change of heart once she realised how much she loved bio-chemistry.
“Every door was just opened to where I wanted to go. It was not like I was sitting down one day and I said, ‘Oh well now, I want to do sciences’. It just happened,” she said.

“I am in love with what I do. I don’t dread waking up in the morning thinking ‘O my God, I have to go to the lab’. It’s something I look forward to,” she says.

What did you study?

Badal-McCreath did her Masters and PhD in Biochemistry from University of West Indies.

Tell us about your work

Badal McCreath’s interest in the potential of naturally derived compounds goes back to her PhD, when she was working on their anticancer properties. “Natural products display a wide array of biological activities, and I suppose you could say that was how my interest or love for biotechnology developed,” she says. During her research on natural sources of anticancer compounds, she realized that most cancer cell lines used to study these compounds were from white people.

“It got me thinking, would these compounds be just as effective against cell lines of African origin?” she says. “So I went and I searched for African cell lines, and I recognized that there were no cell lines that represented the Caribbean.”

It spurred her to begin establishing the first Caribbean cancer cell lines. She has already started on a Caribbean prostate-cancer cell line and plans to develop more. But it’s high-risk research: there is barely a 10% success rate in establishing these cell lines, which requires collecting and cultivating cells from tumours.

In March, the Jamaican government announced an injection of 200 million Jamaican dollars (US$1.5 million) into scientific research, including biotechnology, in its 2019–20 budget, but there are few other opportunities for grants and funding in the country. In such a pinched environment, Badal McCreath advises aspiring biotechnologists to take advantage of their connections. “Create a strategy with the help of those who’ve succeeded at the field,” she says.

Have you faced challenges in your area of work?

Although the lack of funding to finance research continues to be a roadblock in the journey to progress, Dr Badal-McCreath said she was elated at winning the award.

“It is challenging in terms of the time and the tiredness, but when I won this award and I told my students, you should have seen their eyes, it brought so much motivation to me,” she said.

What inspires you?

I’m passionate about the translatability of my  cancer research and that  is ultimately being able to identify Jamaican natural products that can treat cancer. To do this, I’m engaging a personalized approach that involves developing cancer cell lines from the Caribbean. Using these cell lines at all necessary in vitro and preclinical research levels in a facility, the AntiCancer Research Jamaica (being developed) in order to identify products worthy of clinical trials is the goal. We’ve almost developed the first Jamaican prostate cancer cell line.

What are your future plans?

Badal McCreath is optimistic for the future of her research, and has clear goals of not only establishing a library of Caribbean cancer cell lines, but also establishing a cancer-research facility in Jamaica. “It gives me much joy and passion and humility to know that I can be a part of making history and be a part of making an impact on somebody else’s life,” she says.

Dr Badal-McCreath does not intend for her research to just stay in the lab. She hopes they will become commercial products and achieve the intended results. As such, she spent a year at the London School of Commerce so she could achieve a master of business administration from the University of Wales. She also has a master of philosophy from UWI.

“The main reason why I chose to do the MBA was I wanted to be able to market my science. I wanted to be diversified. I see that a lot of scientists at UWI, a part of their struggles in transitioning their results on the market is their lack of business mind or savviness for want of a better word. I don’t like to start things and don’t complete it and so for me, if I do research, the ultimate destiny is to see that making money or building my society,” she said.