I am passionate about seeing things through from the beginning to the end. I am interested in finding out if there are affordable ways of treating cancer. I believe that as an engineer I am properly equipped to think creatively about how we can develop these approaches in a cost-effective way so that people living in third world countries can afford it.”
Kwasi Adu-Berchie ’09 from Ghana is an exciting researcher in the field of immunotherapy, seeking to find effective and accessible treatments for cancer. Currently studying towards a PhD at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, Kwasi is focused on developing affordable Africa-centric solutions to the various diseases that currently plague the continent. He is a past recipient of the Richard Lee Featherstone Endowed Prize at Michigan State University, awarded to senior students who demonstrate an open, curious, creative approach to education and ideas, as well as intellectual ingenuity.
Kwasi was born and raised in Ghana, discovering his passion for science through his father, whose work as a crop researcher is centered on finding ways to yield better crops in the Ghanaian climate. That, combined with his mother’s work in the field of social welfare inspired Kwasi’s early love for medical science as a career path. In high school, Kwasi was very much involved in student politics, going on to serve as President of the Ashanti Regional Student Council.
Discovering a Passion for Medical Research
At ALA, Kwasi found his combined passions for leadership and science accentuated, through the Entrepreneurship and Leadership courses which helped him understand how to consciously develop his leadership potential, and through Biology classes that exposed him to laboratory experiments different from what he had previously experienced. Before attending ALA, Kwasi had decided that he wanted to go to medical school. It was not until a pivotal moment in a Biology class taught by Mr David Scudder (now Dr. Scudder), that Kwasi decided to pursue medical research instead. Through a laboratory experiment that allowed each person to extract their DNA through a cheek swab, Kwasi saw his DNA climbing up the water organic interface and was immediately transfixed. That experience and other classes on the Human Genome Project at ALA put him on track to pursue research and eventually, a PhD.
Accessing Research Opportunities
After ALA, Kwasi earned a scholarship to study at Michigan State University (MSU) where he majored in Biomedical Engineering. Within two weeks of arriving at MSU, Kwasi was knocking on the doors of professors seeking research opportunities in their laboratories. After several rejections, he was awarded funding in a genetic engineering lab where he carried out research throughout his undergraduate education. Through ALA, he was also able to secure internships at the National Institute of Health where he used a scanning electron microscope to compare African, Caucasian and Asian hair types, and the Africa Health Research Institute (formerly known as K-RITH), a world-class research lab in Durban, South Africa focused on HIV and Tuberculosis.
After graduating from MSU, Kwasi was privileged to secure a one-year internship at the renowned MIT Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, through a connection made by ALA’s Global Advisory Council member, Ed Brakeman. This exposure to cancer research not only propelled Kwasi’s acceptance to the PhD program at Harvard University, but also inspired his current research in the field of immunotherapy.
Groundbreaking Cancer Research
Kwasi is currently in his fourth year of a PhD at the John A. Paulson Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, focusing on finding a more effective and affordable treatment for cancer through immunotherapy. Currently, chemotherapy and radiation are the most widely used treatments for cancer patients, which unfortunately often results in relapse. Kwasi’s research is to understand how the immune system can be engineered to build a more resilient response to cancer. In immunotherapy, immune cells are extracted from the body and then supercharged before being reintroduced into the body in order to fight the cancer. Using his background in biomedical engineering, Kwasi is well-positioned to develop systems that can optimize the capacity of immune cells to clear the disease in the human body. This ground-breaking research holds significant promise for the future of cancer treatments around the world.
Pursuing Affordable Cancer Therapies
Kwasi’s desire to understand the capacity of immunotherapy for cancer treatment took on increased significance recently when he discovered that the son of one of his friends in Ghana was diagnosed with cancer. Caring for a sick child while having to raise several thousand dollars for treatments outside the continent constitutes an unbearable burden for most African families. Kwasi is determined to find ways to make cancer treatment more affordable, especially in developing countries, and he hopes to establish a research lab focused on developing affordable, accessible and Africa-centric solutions to the various diseases (including cancer) that currently plague the continent. While acknowledging that there are no guarantees in science, with the all-too-common likelihood of research failures, Kwasi’s passion for seeking answers that will benefit the African continent continues to drive him forward on a daily basis.