Claire Simpson, PhD, is an assistant professor so intrinsically interested in her research and its promise for humanity that teaching becomes a happy coincidence of lifestyle.
“I am passionate about teaching,” said Dr. Simpson, who received a 2021 Excellence in Teaching Award from the Student Government Association Executive Council. “I am passionate about passing on what I know to the next generation. Someone gave me a step up, and if I give someone else a step up, we all pass it forward.”
Dr. Simpson’s research has always been tied to health disparities, but it became more direct when she moved from the National Institutes of Health to the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis.
Here, she and research colleague, Robert Davis, MD, MPH, in the Department of Genetics, Genomics, and Informatics, made the definitive link between the high-risk gene APOL1 and preeclampsia, a condition that causes dangerously high blood pressure.
“If untreated, preeclampsia causes organ damage and can damage the fetus, cause miscarriage, and even death,” Dr. Simpson said.
The risk doubles for women of African descent with two copies of the gene.
Dr. Simpson’s research has given her graduate students and postdocs opportunities to work for extended periods in Ghana, where much of the work is now unfolding.
“Dr. Simpson is pleasant and thoughtful, and as I watch her interact with investigators on different continents, I am motivated to model her collaborative approach to research,” said Emmanuella Salia, a postdoctoral scholar in Dr. Simpson’s lab who spent time in Ghana.
While the link between APOL1 and preeclampsia in women of African descent was long suspected, Dr. Simpson and Dr. Davis found the conclusive evidence in the Memphis CANDLE Study, which includes genetic information from roughly 1,500 mother and baby pairs. Nearly 1,000 of the mothers are of African ancestry.
“If you can detect it early, you have a much better chance of preventing the disease from progressing. ‘Oh, we need to monitor this woman’s blood pressures on regular basis and catch it if it starts to creep up.’ Early intervention is very important,” Dr. Simpson said.
Her goal is having an affordable test that identifies the gene mutation early on.
“There definitely will be diagnostics in these women’s lifetimes. I’m not talking about it taking 30 years. I’m talking about five years,” she said.
Replicating the early research findings is the tricky part and ultimately produced one of the greatest recognitions of Dr. Simpson’s career, a $1 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2018 to continue building a cohort of African women of child-bearing age in Ghana. She has received an additional $600,000 from the Gates Foundation to fund the study until August.
“The Gates people were quite excited about it,” Dr. Simpson said. “We would be building a cohort that would be the largest in the world of African women with preeclampsia.”
In three hospitals in Ghana, the two UTHSC researchers are overseeing lab collections from everyday Ghanaian women who travel miles across the countryside for prenatal care. If they have preeclampsia, they join the cohort. If they don’t, they are part of the control group.
“Right now, we have approximately 700 cases, which is literally about 10 times the size of any cohort out there before we started,” Dr. Simpson said.
“We’ve got blood. We’ve got urine. We have placenta, and cord blood from the infant. It’s become this gigantic thing,” she said. “We only need blood from the mom and the baby to test for this gene. The reason we collected all these other samples is that we are hoping to create a biorepository that could be used for a lot more questions in the future.”
Having one copy of the mutation is salvation for people who live in tropical Africa, because it protects them from African sleeping sickness, a fatal if not treated parasitic disease carried by the tsetse fly.
Two copies – one from the father and one from the mother – doubles the chance of preeclampsia, which threatens both the mother and baby.
The genetic link to preeclampsia has profound implications for individuals of African descent everywhere in the world. In the United States alone, about 13% of African Americans carry two copies of the gene, which leads researchers to believe that one-eighth of preeclampsia cases in the U.S. are likely associated with APOL1.
“This could be in the Caribbean, the UK, or someplace else in Europe. It doesn’t matter. If you have significant African ancestry, you are almost certainly at risk,” Dr. Simpson said.
When the Ghana samples are in, Dr. Simpson will be in charge of the statistical heavy lifting to pinpoint which regions of the human genome are responsible for disease susceptibility or resistance, said Robert Williams, PhD, chair of the Department of Genetics, Genomics and Informatics.
“She’s a fine mentor for everyone she works with, including me. It’s wonderful to have people like Claire who are very clear about the right way and the wrong way of doing things.”
Dr. Simpson, who grew up in a low socioeconomic rung in England, says that even 20 years ago, the idea that she could be a successful scientist living in the U.S. was such a reach as to be laughable.
That’s behind her now, and Memphis is part of the reason.
“When I was deciding where to go, Memphis, a minority-majority city, was extremely attractive. I felt like this was a place I could do work that was meaningful.”