by Sasha Nimmo

‘Meet the Scientists’ is a series of interviews with researchers working on ME and chronic fatigue syndrome. We hear about current research directly from scientists and meet the people doing such important work to improve our health. The series will introduce early career researchers through to interviewing scientists and clinicians who have been working on the problems for decades.

Fane Mensah is a scientist specialising in infection and immunity at the University College London. Fane recently came to Australia to work alongside Chris Armstrong at Bio 21, Melbourne University.  Fane and Chris Armstrong received a research grant by an US organisation, Solve ME/CFS Initiative, to work on a cross-disciplinary project combining the field of immunology (B-cells) and metabolism: Immuno-metabolism.

In 2014, Fane initiated a new project studying B cells in ME/CFS patients, setting up a clinic in London for ME/CFS patients overseeing patient sampling, scientific experiments and data analysis. The study was published in Clinical and Experimental Immunology, or you can read a summary.  It identified possible changes in B cells which could provide a platform for drug studies.

For his doctorate, Fane set up national and international collaborations, including with Dr Fluge and Professor Mella from the Haukeland University Hospital (Bergen, Norway), the oncologists leading the Rituximab clinical trials in ME/CFS.

Fane has presented his work at many international conferences and was shortlisted for Sparrho’s Early Career Researcher Prize (interview).

Last year he briefed the UK’s Chief Medical Officer at Westminster, London, on the latest medical research into ME/CFS and while in Australia, he was part of the team briefing Australia’s Chief Medical Officer in Canberra.

What was the reason you came to Australia?
The main purpose of my stay was to analyze and discuss the data we have produced during our collaboration and gain further knowledge about metabolism from a world expert, like Chris.

During my time in Melbourne, I learnt how to determine metabolite concentrations from raw nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectra and how to use the analytical workflows to interpret data. The fact that we got our expertise in different fields, which allowed us to ask each other relevant questions about Immunology and Metabolism really helped us move forward in our project.

Why is international collaboration important to your work?
As a scientist, you want to match yourself with the best scientists in your field and share your expertise, but you also want to learn from others in a different culture and country. For these exact reasons, international collaboration is so important for me, it adds up to your “experience package” not only as a scientist but also as a person.

How would you describe the state of Australia’s research into ME and CFS, compared to other countries?
In my opinion, Australia has expert leaders in the field at well-known institutions with high potential. On the other hand, Australia is somewhat isolated from Europe and the US in terms of funding possibilities and resources. It is therefore very important that the right scientists are recognized and supported by the continent to maintain and grow within Australia. This will eventually strengthen the connections already built with the rest of the world.

What most surprised you about Australia?
As a PhD candidate from the UK where hierarchy in academia is a big thing, I was very surprised by the way (senior) Australian scientists were approachable. They have been very welcoming, and the contact was warm with no barrier of hierarchy. This makes it much easier to collaborate, build relationships and discuss my work.

What have Australian scientists been interested to know about your work?
It was great to see how interested my colleagues were in the system I have developed, which allows me to analyze different features of maturating B cells in vitro (interest in my expertise in cell culture and immunology).

Did you learn anything interesting during your time here?
Absolutely! As an immunologist it was great to learn more about another very promising discipline and fast-growing field in not only ME and CFS but also within science; metabolism!
I also learnt a bit about the Australian government system, which I hope will come in handy in the future.

Was your time in Australia was important?
During my time, I realized that my stay was not only important for my own development, but I also had the opportunity to do something for the ME CFS community, something I really enjoyed doing like: joining the screening of Unrest, attending a radio interview with my colleague and speaking with Australian patients. Furthermore, I think Chris and I set an important example for scientists by meeting with government parliamentarians.

Is London a good place to be a researcher?
After I finished my Masters back in the Netherlands I always wanted to do a PhD in London, the city is surrounded by great universities and scientists. I’m very fortunate to study at a topnotch institute like UCL. Because of the many universities in London, there is a lot of potential to collaborate, learn and develop new skills and meet the right people in your field.

What will you be working on back in the UK?
I will be working on two new papers which we hope to publish soon (including collaboration with Bio 21 Institute) and continue writing my PhD thesis.

What is the highlight of your career and what are you most proud of so far?
The highlight for me so far has to be the recognition of my work and the way I approach it. This resulted in an oral presentation at a big Immunology conference, high-quality international collaborations (Australia, US, Norway and UK), and some very interesting meetings. As a young scientist, I can say that I have achieved things I would have never thought of achieving during my PhD which makes me a very proud person. I do have to thank my supervisors for their support and advice throughout.

What would you like to achieve in your career?
I would love for my work to be contribute to a field much in need such as ME and CFS and to make a different to the lives of patients. With my background, I hope to be an inspiration for other young people, persuading them to pursue a career in science.

What are the biggest challenges facing research into ME and CFS?
Obviously funding and recognition of the condition throughout the medical field. I have to say that it has changed throughout the years and I am confident that these challenges would be less difficult to face in the future.

Outside work, what did you enjoy about Australia?
I was very happy to have some time to travel a bit. Visiting Australia was such a great experience; I have met some very nice people, saw the amazing scenery and enjoyed the delicious food in Melbourne. My visit is something I will never forget!

Follow Fane on twitter at @Fane_Mensah.

Fane Mensah standing in front of Parliament House Canberra