Time out with T.O. - The chemist

by Tom O'Connor, UNMC public relations (retired) | July 08, 2020

Image with caption: Benson Edagwa, PhD

Benson Edagwa, PhD

Although his roots might be in Kenya, it's pretty safe to say that Benson Edagwa, PhD, has blossomed in Omaha.

Since joining UNMC in 2012, Dr. Edagwa has been a key inventor in two of the biggest research breakthroughs ever at the medical center:

  • In 2019, the complete eradication of HIV in a mouse model using long-acting slow-effective release antiretroviral therapy (LASER ART) developed at UNMC coupled with a gene editing/delivery system created at Temple University then developed by Prasanta Dash, PhD, assistant professor at UNMC; and
  • In 2020, the development of a potential antiretroviral for prevention of HIV that could be given once a year instead of monthly.

With his strong skillset in chemistry, Dr. Edagwa has been the perfect complement to the research interests of Howard Gendelman, MD, professor and chair of the UNMC Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Neuroscience.

The Edagwa file

Wife, Teresa Mutahi, PhD, senior lecturer in biology at University of Florida
Two sons - Esmond, 8, and Eliott, 5
2005 - BS, chemistry, Moi University, Eldoret, Kenya
2012 - PhD, chemistry, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, La.
Academic appointments:
2012-2014 - postdoctoral research associate, UNMC
2014-2015 - fellow, GlaxoSmithKline
2015-2016 - research scholar in antiretroviral therapeutics, ViiV Healthcare
2016-2017 - distinguished scientist, ViiV Healthcare
2015-2017 - instructor, UNMC Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Neuroscience
2017-2020 - assistant professor
2020-present - associate professor
Honors and awards:
2013 - UNMC Silver U Award
2014 - Young Investigator Scholarship, CROI Foundation
2019 - African Leadership Summit Award
2019 - Board member, University of Eldoret Endowment Trust, Kenya
2019 - Emerging Inventor of the Year, UNeMed Corporation
2020 - UNMC New Investigator Award
2020 - Nicholas Badami Fellowship in HIV/AIDS Research
13 patents
11 research grants - five active, three completed, and three pending
50 presentations at scientific meetings
42 publications in scientific journals and one book chapter

"Dr. Gendelman gives opportunity to all," said Dr. Edagwa, who was recently promoted to associate professor. "He'll provide you the tools you need to succeed. I wouldn't be where I am without him, our research program, UNMC, collaborators and funders."

Growing up nearly 9,000 miles from Omaha on a farm in Vihiga County in Kenya, Dr. Edagwa was the fourth of seven children of Eunice and Andrew Edagwa. He is the only one in his family who left Kenya.

Swahili is the native language in Kenya with English a secondary language. Amazingly, 42 different languages are spoken in Kenya, and Dr. Edagwa can speak 14 of them.

His father wanted him to be a farmer, but his mother overruled and directed him to Moi University. That's where he met Samuel Lutta, PhD, the man who changed his life forever.

A chemistry professor, Dr. Lutta told him "to see me in my office." He could see that the young man had a special talent for chemistry. He wanted him to investigate going to graduate school abroad, as Kenya didn't offer the graduate training he would need to truly make a difference.

He applied and was accepted to Louisiana State University, where he earned his PhD in chemistry in 2012.

With HIV and tuberculosis especially prominent in Kenya, Dr. Edagwa wanted to pursue his post-doctoral training in infectious diseases. He answered an ad for a position in Dr. Gendelman's lab and was soon on his way to Nebraska.

Dr. Gendelman, whose training was in biology, found that Dr. Edagwa's chemistry training was a perfect fit. The two worked together to discover LASER ART.

Dr. Edagwa, who is a co-inventor on 13 different patents, was constantly looking for ways to modify the molecules in existing drugs and make them more flexible.

"I think about how things work with everything I buy at the store. I wanted to figure out how baby formula gets into the brain and provides nutrients to the spinal cord; what is in that chocolate bar that I buy for my wife," he said. "It's just being observant. It's the Kenyan way.

"When I was at LSU, I was cooking dinner one night and started thinking about how table salt became ionized from chloride to form glass-like solids. I was researching on a liquid molecule whose internal appearance could only be visualized from solid forms by X-ray, so I went to the lab at 10 p.m. and used hydrochloric acid on the molecule and it worked. I saw some glass-like material in the vial within a week."

Dr. Edagwa now has seven graduate students and two post-docs in his laboratory. In addition to his HIV research, the team has been working on modifying molecules to develop new medicines for hepatitis B and COVID-19.

For decades, Kenya has produced some of the greatest long distance runners in the world. But, for Dr. Edagwa, walking fast is much preferable to running.

"The problem with running is you stop thinking," he said. "Walking allows you to think more."

Keep on walking, Dr. Edagwa. You're doing just fine.


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Paul ntikoisa
July 15, 2020 at 8:41 AM

Congratulations Dr. Edagwa,a very inspiring story

Jan Love
July 10, 2020 at 9:36 AM

What an amazing young man you are! I am so glad that you made your way to our wonderful UNMC. here in Omaha. Congratulations and thank you for all your wonderful work!

Jeanne Lynch
July 09, 2020 at 10:23 AM

So so proud to know you.

Aislinn Rookwood
July 08, 2020 at 3:30 PM

Congratulations Dr. Edgawa on all of your accomplishments! It was inspiring to read about your passion for research and teaching. We are fortunate to have such an accomplished researcher at UNMC. Thank you for all that you do.

Benson Edagwa
July 08, 2020 at 12:39 PM

Thank you All!

Nicholas Heimann
July 08, 2020 at 12:23 PM

Good Job!

Ruth Scott
July 08, 2020 at 11:07 AM

There is NO place like Nebraska! Thanks for coming here to “ blossom”!!

Jerrie Dayton
July 08, 2020 at 10:02 AM

Congratulations Dr. Edagwa. You are amazing, dedicated and talented. We're lucky you wound up in Nebraska

Raghu Dagur
July 08, 2020 at 9:52 AM

Bensen, warmest congratulations on your well-deserved success!

Ed Ezell
July 08, 2020 at 9:48 AM

Hey Benson, Good job sir! Hold that Tiger indeed!

Bhagya Dyavar
July 08, 2020 at 9:25 AM

Congratulations Benson, you are so inspiring, keep up the great work! Very happy for you!

Huangui Xiong
July 08, 2020 at 9:11 AM

Warmest congratulations on your achievements!

Larisa Poluektova
July 08, 2020 at 8:41 AM

Best wishes, new achievements and happy scientific adventures!