Malaria kills more than half a million people every year, mostly children under the age of five in Africa. Saving the lives of those children was the lifelong mission of Dominic Kwiatkowski, who has died suddenly aged 69.
Allied to that ambition was his vision that genetic sequencing – a technology that was beginning to be affordable on a large scale in the 2000s – could answer questions about why some children died and others survived.
A professor at Oxford University, Dominic recognised that bringing the power of genomics to bear on malaria would need data from multiple studies in many countries. He saw that the only way to achieve that was in partnership with researchers based in the countries where malaria was endemic.
Persuading western funders to invest in diseases that mainly affect developing countries is never easy, but in 2005 Dominic won funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust to set up the Malaria Genomic Epidemiology Network (MalariaGEN). Over time, research funding that had originally been funnelled via wealthy institutions in the north has increasingly gone directly to researchers in malaria-endemic countries.
MalariaGEN is now a global community, with more than 200 researchers in more than 40 countries. From the outset it embodied principles of openness and data sharing, with Dominic often travelling to partner institutions to establish mutual trust. Together with training and the development of laboratories, this helped to ensure that the researchers gained the capacity to lead their own studies and dispelled any suspicion that rich countries were exploiting the resources of less-wealthy ones.
Abdoulaye Djimdé, professor of parasitology in Bamako, Mali, who was a founder olf the Plasmodium Diversity Network Africa, has credited Dominic with training his generation of scientists and pioneering the principle of sharing data, samples and results.
According to Olivo Miotto, of the Mahidol Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit in Bangkok, Thailand, “Dominic was passionate about giving researchers in endemic countries the same opportunities as researchers in the UK or other rich countries.”
Miotto and his Thai colleagues deployed methods developed by international partners to extract the DNA of the parasite that causes malaria, Plasmodium falciparum, directly from very small blood samples taken from infected children. The technique has transformed surveillance to detect the emergence of drug-resistant parasites.
MalariaGEN now has the world’s largest dataset on malaria, combining the genomics of human populations, the parasite, and the mosquitoes that spread it. This resource is vital to the development of new and better vaccines and ultimately to eliminating the disease.
Jeremy Farrar, former director of the Wellcome Trust and now chief scientist at the World Health Organization, said: “Dominic was always ahead of his time in arguing that one should consider the host and parasite together. What [the partnership] did on the human side and latterly with artemisinin resistance on the parasite side was groundbreaking work.”
Born in Hammersmith, west London, Dominic was one of four children of Mary (nee Hernon), a nurse, midwife and health visitor, and Karol Kwiatkowski, an engineer. He grew up first in Lytham St Annes, Lancashire, attending Preston Catholic college, and later in the village of Minchinhampton in Gloucestershire, where he went to Marling school, a boys’ grammar in Stroud. He won a scholarship to Exeter College, Oxford, to study philosophy, physiology and psychology, and subsequently trained as a doctor. He completed his medical training at Guy’s hospital in London, specialising in paediatrics.
In 1986 he went to the Gambia to work with Brian Greenwood, the director of the Medical Research Council Laboratories there, initiating studies of genetic variants that might affect susceptibility to malaria. Witnessing the terrible impact of the disease on young children was life-changing.
In 1989 he took up a post in the Oxford University department of paediatrics, continuing his clinical research in west Africa and subsequently basing his research group in the city’s Wellcome Centre for Human Genetics and Big Data Institute.
In 2006, the year after he founded MalariaGEN, Dominic took up a joint appointment at the Wellcome Sanger Institute near Cambridge, which had the best resources in the country for high-throughput genome sequencing. By 2020, the year he retired from his Oxford chair, his group had built up an unrivalled reputation in the genomic surveillance of disease and understanding the structure of host populations.
Far from ready to give up work, Dominic moved with all his team to the Sanger. With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, he was a key player in the establishment of the Covid-19 Genomics Consortium UK (COG-UK) in March 2020, many of his own team pivoting to sequence thousands of virus samples. The Sanger Institute’s Genomic Surveillance Unit, established in 2021, continues to support data-sharing initiatives globally in malaria, Covid and other infectious diseases – realising a vision Dominic had put forward a decade before. “After Covid, people understood that genomic surveillance was a powerful tool for public health,” said Dominic’s longstanding colleague Vikki Simpson, now head of partnerships and engagement at the unit.
Outside his field Dominic had virtually no public profile – he never sought the limelight and even when elected to the Royal Society, a distinction he valued, he refused to allow his colleagues to throw a party to celebrate. But it would be wrong to call him self-effacing.
In making a case to potential funders, or debating a point of research strategy, his passion would command the room. He worked obsessively: in the little time he left for recreation, he enjoyed music, poetry, family walks, running and cycling.
Dominic retired from his faculty position at the Sanger in 2022. He had been looking forward to spending more time supporting colleagues around the world in their malaria surveillance efforts, and was working on a revised model of population genetics when he collapsed suddenly at home.
In 1980 Dominic married Janice Giffen, a development economist. She and their four children, Joe, Tom, Rachel and Dan, survive him, as do three grandchildren, Joan, Nahla and Layla.