Tuberculosis is caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis, a bacteria with a cell wall thick enough to block out most drugs. Mireille Kamariza designed a molecule that embeds into that wall and lights up — researchers only need a microscope and a reagent to see it. Photo by Fred Tomlin.
Growing up in Bujumbura, Burundi, Mireille Kamariza (M.S. '15, chembio) didn’t know any astronomers, or any scientists at all for that matter. But she adored planets anyway. At the start of every school year, she and her fellow students would wrap up their notebooks to protect them from wear. And every year, Kamariza hunted her town for magazines with glossy pictures of planets, astronauts, and “any news about astronomy.” Between classes, she stared at those astronomical covers like they were portals to a fantastical world.
The Junior Fellow never ended up floating among the stars, at least not in a literal sense. This August, Chemical & Engineering News named her one of its Talented 12 for her invention of a quick, low-cost test to detect tuberculosis. In 2017, Fortune magazine named her one of the World’s Most Powerful Women while she was still a graduate student. In 2018, she earned an even rarer title: co-founder of a company in the male-dominated biotech industry. In a way, the world she now inhabits — that of an award-winning scientist, Silicon Valley biotech entrepreneur, degree recipient from the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University — was a fantastical world, at least to that young girl in Burundi who got lost in pictures of Mars and Venus.
“It feels like a different life,” Kamariza said, “It’s nothing short of a miracle that I’m one of the few that was able to make that jump.”
After achieving the fantastical, Kamariza is tackling a very real problem: Throughout the developing world, including Burundi, tuberculosis is one of the top causes of death. In 2018, the disease killed 1.5 million worldwide, far more than even AIDS. Though testing and treatment are on the rise, low-income, rural populations still struggle to detect and contain the disease (especially now that COVID-19 diagnostics are prioritized over every other infectious disease). Each year, about 10 million people develop tuberculosis and about 3 million go undetected, Kamariza said. Her invention — a portable diagnostic tool — could help identify more cases faster, anywhere in the world, to prevent further spread, get treatment to those in need, and even monitor the effectiveness of that treatment.