It was a fortuitous time to receive good news: researcher Tala de los Santos '93 learned she had been named a Washington Global Health Alliance Rising Leader the very day she went into labor with her second daughter.
"People were congratulating me, and I had to ask them if it was for the award or for the baby," she said, laughing.
Tala's "Rising Leader" accolade acknowledges the transformative work she directs as the leader of the diagnostics program for PATH, a Seattle-based non-profit that develops innovative solutions for global health challenges. Tala oversees a team of 45 scientists, public health specialists, and business strategists—plus a $17 million budget—to develop and introduce point-of-care tests for use in health care programs in developing countries.
It sounds complex, and it is. Tala's work with river blindness provides an excellent example. River blindness is a parasitic disease that is found near fast-flowing rivers in Africa, Latin America, and Yemen. The World Health Organization estimates there are 120 million people at risk of getting the disease, which is transmitted by flies that carry the parasite. There is treatment available, although everyone in the affected community has to take the drug annually for ten years or more. After the community has been told that they can stop taking the drug, the problem is monitoring the situation to make sure that the disease does not come back.
That's where Tala and her team come in. Funded by a grant from the Gates Foundation, PATH researchers and scientists were able to invent a diagnostic tool that is fast, inexpensive, and simple to use in rural locations with limited resources. It took nearly four years of work, but the tool is now in the final phase: It is being manufactured by a South Korean firm and is being deployed in endemic countries.
"This project is near and dear to my heart," Tala says. "Previously, no manufacturer would take on diagnostics for neglected tropical diseases because there wasn't enough profit. At PATH, we are able to do 'high-risk' research and development work for health products that otherwise would not be developed." Tala explains that by tackling the R&D component, PATH was able to de-risk the project. Once the prototype has been designed and tested, PATH partnered with a commercial company to bring it to market.
"We just placed orders (for the river blindness tool) for Togo and Nigeria," she says with pride. "My team is training in-country partners on the proper use of the tests."
Tala says her passion for global health is a direct result of her UWC-USA experience. She began her career working for a for-profit biotech firm, and while she enjoyed the opportunities it provided, Tala found herself seeking greater fulfilment. "I wanted to explore how work could be a bit more meaningful for me," she says.
Her search led her to PATH, where she's been for 10 years. Initially interested in biomedical research—she was on track to get a Ph.D. – Tala changed gears and earned master's degrees in genetics and in business. "At PATH, I get to combine the rigor of business thinking with scientific work to address health inequities", she says.
Tala's exposure to students from so many parts of the world as a UWC-USA student gave her a deep insight into issues she had never previously considered. "When I arrived at UWC-USA at 16, I hardly thought of world issues," she says. "Being there allowed me to engage in questions I had been sheltered from, and I learned how important it was to have the perspective of so many different views but to still be able to act with conviction on my own."
Tala stayed in the U.S. for the duration of her two years at UWC-USA – her family couldn't afford for her to fly home during breaks. Her mother is a professor and her father is an architect, but money was always tight for the family. She received full scholarships to go to Mount Holyoke College for her undergraduate work and Stanford University for her master's degree in human genetics.
"I am deeply grateful to the U.S. for all the education I received," she says. "I truly had the best education in the country."
She's thought "many times" about returning to the Philippines, but she feels she's able to do more global good from her perch in Seattle. "I'm able to harness more resources here that I can bring to the Philippines and other developing countries," she explains.
But she will return one day. "There's a Chinese saying: 'Sea turtles always end up returning to the place they were born.' That resonates with me."
In the meantime, there are new projects to tackle and more diseases to conquer. She and her team are currently working on a new diagnostic tool for elephantiasis, another parasitic disease that causes gross enlargement of the arms, legs, or genitals.
At the same time, Tala is looking at ways of increasing the participation of the medical diagnostics industry in global health by using PATH as an investor in companies that could effectively grapple with neglected diseases. "Our impact could be broader and longer-lasting by harnessing a deeper bench of talent," she explains.
"There's so much work that still needs to be done," says Tala. And this rising leader is just the person to be doing it.
Photo credit: Credit: PATH/Patrick McKern