Q&A: Bioengineer Mireille Kamariza can’t wait to see what’s next
The newly minted UCLA professor is dedicated to improving testing for tuberculosis and other infectious diseases
By Wayne Lewis
This article was originally published by UCLA Newsroom
When Mireille Kamariza joined the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering as an assistant professor of bioengineering in January, she brought with her an early record of innovation.
Just a decade after earning her undergraduate degree at UC San Diego, Kamariza has already developed a potential point-of-care diagnostic test for tuberculosis. TB is the world’s second-deadliest infectious disease, behind COVID-19, and still a serious burden in low-income countries.
In the late 2010s, as a doctoral fellow at Stanford University, Kamariza and colleagues designed a system with a fluorescent “reporter” molecule attached to a sugar that is the cornerstone of the tuberculosis bacterium’s metabolism. The reporter molecule can then be used to illuminate the germ under a fluorescent microscope.
In regions with limited health care resources, TB tests can take months to return results. If Kamariza’s system proves successful, it could result in a simple, inexpensive test that works in under an hour — which could improve care for millions around the world.
As a teenager, Kamariza immigrated to the U.S. from her native Burundi. While she was taking community college courses, an instructor encouraged her to attend UCSD. There, she connected with another mentor, biologist Tracy Johnson, who helped Kamariza see herself for the first time as a future scientist. (Johnson herself joined the UCLA faculty in 2013 and is now dean of physical sciences in the UCLA College.)
In an interview, Kamariza, a member of the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA, discussed the inspiration for her work, the importance of representation and a recent honor from the journal Nature Medicine.
What was the intellectual process that led to the tuberculosis diagnostic?
The original idea was, “What if we took this sugar and modified it by adding a reporter?” We wanted a research tool so we could follow TB cells in an infectious state, in real time. It turned out that the cells loved our modified sugars, and somehow, the dye maintained its fluorescence. We could see it!
Once we optimized the system, using it was so simple. I would just put one drop of the modified sugar in a sample, go grab coffee for 30 minutes, and when I came back, I’d transfer the sample to a microscope. Voila, I had my results.
► Watch PBS NewsHour’s 2021 profile of Kamariza
I realized that this could have a bigger impact as a simple, modern way of detecting tuberculosis. The last time someone built a new, microscope-based TB detection method was 1932. That was shocking to me! My first thought was, “Why has it taken this long?” And the second was, “This is much, much needed.”
We looked for someone to team up with and figure out whether it would work in low-income environments. Through the Gates Foundation, I found a collaborator at Witswatersrand University in South Africa — Bavesh Kana, who’s a really creative and talented thinker. I traveled to his lab to test our sugars in samples from patients with TB. We published a paper together showing our modified sugar works to detect TB in less than an hour in the clinic.
How did your personal history inform your research?
I knew diagnostic technologies were outdated in Burundi, where I come from. I knew the urgency of addressing tuberculosis. Instead of saying, “Oh, this is cool. We have a new research method,” it was like, “No, no, let’s think about applying this. How can we optimize this so we can get it out of the lab? Let’s go to South Africa. Let’s go to Vietnam. Let’s talk to folks on the ground and understand how we can best implement this system where it’s needed most.”
In previous interviews, you’ve mentioned that your love of science began with stargazing. What led you from that to bioengineering?
Looking at the stars, I always wondered, “What’s up there?” It made me want to be an astronaut. But as a little girl in Burundi, I believed there was no way I could be. Then again, becoming a biochemist or a professor at UCLA would also have been a silly idea at the time, to be honest.
There really wasn’t any planning. I just followed my curiosity — about science, nature and the world around me. I’ve been lucky to have supporters, mentors, friends and family who helped me every step of the way.
To what extent do you see yourself as a role model for the next generation of scientists from underrepresented groups?
I’m so grateful and proud that I’m part of improving and increasing representation. Undergrads from backgrounds typically underrepresented in engineering or in the Samueli School are seeing themselves reflected back in me and so many other faculty of color at UCLA. First, they can say, “Yes, I belong here.” Second, “I could totally be a bioengineer.”
You came to Los Angeles after completing a fellowship at Harvard University. Why launch your lab at UCLA?
UCLA has world-renowned engineering and life sciences research programs, one of the best hospital networks in the country and a sizable infectious-disease research community. And in particular for me, UCLA has two facilities set up to safely investigate diseases such as TB, which is an absolute must for my work.
From a broader perspective, I’m trying to develop technologies that can be rapidly implemented outside of my lab, and UCLA — and particularly UCLA Engineering — has an outstanding track record of doing just that. And at CNSI, they have startups literally being born and bred in the building! So the UCLA ecosystem was just the right fit for my work.
What’s happening now with the tuberculosis diagnostic research?
International clinical trials of the diagnostic shut down due to the pandemic. Now we are reopening. Testing hasn’t started, but they’re recruiting patients and we’re getting back on track — hallelujah!
At UCLA, we’re trying to use a similar system to test whether drug treatments work and to detect inactive TB hiding in the body.
What other projects are you developing for your UCLA research group?
My research focuses on the infectious diseases that are burdening low-resource environments and are some of the deadliest in the world. My work at Harvard leveraged a CRISPR-based system to detect Ebola and Lassa virus, as well as other viruses that are prevalent in West Africa.
In my lab, we will use that system to detect malaria-causing pathogens, along with many other bacterial infections that are endemic in low- and middle-income countries. The beauty of this CRISPR system is that it enables us to test multiple samples at one time, and to detect multiple bacteria with the same test.
In December, Nature Medicine named you one of its “11 early-career researchers to watch.” What did that mean to you?
I was in complete shock! I still have a remnant of impostor syndrome, because I looked at the list and I was like, “Gosh, all of these people are professors already. I don’t know how I made it onto this list.” I feel the pressure to perform — to earn that spot. But I feel incredibly honored to be in such good company.
After that came out, I received so many emails saying, “Look how far you’ve come. I can’t wait to see what you have in store.” And, look, I can’t wait either!