NMHI graduate’s ‘plan B’ PhD project may advance stroke research

NMHI PhD graduate Joseph Kamtchum Tatuene’s findings point to targeting inflammation, in addition to lowering cholesterol, for stroke prevention in some patients.

By Ramona Czakert Franson - 30 June 2022

When Dr. Joseph Kamtchum Tatuene's grandmother passed away from a stroke, and he noticed his home country Cameroon had little advanced treatment in this area, he began a journey to learn about stroke. Already an MD, his journey took him to Switzerland to specialize in neurology, to Liverpool for a master’s degree in research and to Malawi for a fellowship. He then moved to the U of A for an unintended PhD project, yielding a promising finding that reducing inflammation may play a role in stroke prevention in some patients.

He chose the U of A's Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute (NMHI) program to study with Dr. Glen Jickling because he was interested in the genetic aspects of stroke research. As a stroke neurologist, he had previously worked on biomarkers of stroke and arterial diseases in Malawi so he also wanted to study people with carotid atherosclerosis, a condition that leads to plaque accumulation in the carotid arteries in the neck and can lead to stroke.

Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“The pandemic made it impossible to pursue my PhD project as initially planned because patient recruitment at the University of Alberta  Hospital became almost impossible,” says Kamtchum Tatuene. So he focused on what he calls his “plan B.” He started to look at previously collected data from around the world in a new way, founding an international research consortium, the Carotid Atherosclerosis and Stroke Collaboration (CASCO) to bring together minds and data.

In this deeper dive, taking a new look at old data, he found that interleukin 6 (IL-6), a protein that plays a role in inflammation, contributes to faster plaque accumulation over time, aka “plaque progression,” which may lead to higher risk of stroke. For this work, Kamtchum Tatuene won a European Stroke Organisation (ESO) Young Research Investigator Award and the paper was published in Circulation Research

“We may discover that, for these patients, lowering the levels of cholesterol may not be enough and that we may also need to target inflammation to provide optimal protection against stroke,” says Kamtchum Tatuene. 

Trials are needed to prove this hypothesis, but it is possible that reduction of inflammation may play almost as big a role as cholesterol reduction for stroke prevention in some patients with carotid atherosclerosis. And for these patients, successful treatments could include anti-IL-6 drugs to block the excess production of IL-6. 

The future has many possibilities for Kamtchum Tatuene, now that he has completed his PhD, in only three years, and convocated this spring. 

“I am grateful to the NMHI, the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research, and the Department of Medicine for their support throughout the journey!” says Kamtchum Tatuene. “The next challenge is to find some funding and a place where I can start building an independent stroke research program. My dream is to build such a program in Africa where high-quality stroke research is scarce and stroke care services remain inadequate.”