Fighting malaria in Africa from apartment in Charlestown

Catonsville Times
Charlestown resident fighting disease a world away

Charlestown senior living community resident Diane Winn hardly fits the bill of older retiree.

Where other residents have Thanksgiving-themed wreaths on their doors and photos of family members and grandchildren on their hallway shelves, Winn has works of art from Africa and a photo of herself greeting an Ashanti king.

In fact, Winn isn't even retired.

When she graduated from college in 1959 with a degree in biology, Winn had no way of knowing that she would spend the next 50 years of her life traveling between the United States and Ghana working to develop and sell an affordable, effective treatment for malaria.

But that's exactly what happened, and it's what she's still working on to this day.

"I say, on the surface, I'm retired," she said, adding that her children have been asking her to slow down for years. "They say I've done enough."

But she can't bring herself to quit what's been her life's passion.

Winn, who turns 78 on Nov. 19, is the founder of two companies that have created a medicine that she said can clear a person of malaria within five days. She currently has no products on the market, and she is working to secure funding to get her company's medicine back on shelves.

Winn's journey to Ghana and the treatment of malaria happened more by chance than on purpose.

The Allentown, Pa. native was a trained medical illustrator with a job at the National Institutes of Health researching cancer when, in 1962, she was offered an opportunity to conduct research in Ghana. President John F. Kennedy had agreed to send a group of scientists there, Winn said, and she was one of about 20 scientists selected to go.

Kennedy had contracted malaria while captaining a PT boat in the Pacific during World World II.

Always interested in the kinds of medical problems other countries were dealing with, Winn said she agreed immediately.

"I said, 'Sure. Where's Ghana?'" she said.

Soon after arriving in Ghana she met Dr. Oku Ampofo, a Ghanaian doctor who had received his medical training in the West but had a strong interest in incorporating native Ghanaian plants into treatment of illness.

The pair bonded over a shared love of art, Winn said.

For Ampofo, sculpting has long been a stress-reliever and a means of funding some of his medical research.

Winn, trained as a medical illustrator, found her love was in drawing portraits of people she met.

In fact, Winn said, art helped her succeed in the medical field.

Winn has drawn numerous portraits of distinguished figures. Doing so has introduced her to officials and power players who have, in turn, lent an ear on matters of health and medications.

Her portraits of Ashanti royals decorate the hall Ashanti king uses to receive visitors, she said.

The Ghanean government has also helped to support some of her medical research.

In time, Winn and Ampofo began to talk medicine as well as art. "He became like a father figure to me," Winn said.

When Ampofo died in 1998, he left her his body of medical knowledge, she said.

From Ampofo, Winn said she learned about hundreds of natural, plant-based remedies, including the nibima plant's root that can be used to treat malaria.

Through her work in Ghana, Winn knew that malaria was one of the most widespread health problems affecting the region.

"Almost everyone I know got malaria," she said.

Transmitted by mosquitoes, malaria is caused by parasites that attach themselves to a person's red blood cells, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms include high fever, chills and vomiting.

In a country with a population of 25.9 million in 2013, the World Health Organization reported around 1.6 million people contracted the disease. Of those individuals, 2,506 died as a result of the illness, the WHO said.

Using the nibima plant, Winn created a medicinal tea that, when taken three times a day for three to five days, symptoms of malaria disappeared.

"Malaria is the biggest problem in Africa, probably worldwide," she said. "So this was a very important one to get out."

In 2000, a company Winn founded began selling the tea, called Phyto-Laria, in Africa. The medicine was shown to have a 93.5 percent success rate by a study published in the Ghana Medical Journal.

In addition to its effectiveness, Winn said the tea's low price made it easily accessible to those who needed it.

But there was a problem. Try as she and her co-developers would, they could not drown out the nibima plant's bitter taste, something that made consumption of the tea difficult for some.

The tea is now off the market, but Winn is working with members of her company, Phytica, to develop a pill form of the medication.

She estimates that her company, which has received some funding from the Ghanaian government, will have to raise about $1 million more to fund the development.

For now, a Ghanaian division of the company maintains production facilities and nibima farms in Ghana while Winn works from the United States to find funding sources for further research. They have also partnered with a Ghanaian pharmaceutical company, LaGray Chemical, she said, in an effort to keep as much of the work in Ghana as possible.

From her Charlestown apartment, Winn fields calls from Phytica partners on a regular basis. One of those partners is Agyeman Badu Akosa, a well-known pathologist and former director general of the Ghana Health Service.

Akosa, who now serves as president of Phytica's Ghanian division, said he met Winn through one of her portraits. Her work with Ampofo garnered her a good deal of respect in Ghana, he said.

"Together, they have quite a decent reputation for a lot of treatments," Akosa said, adding that he had always been interested in plant-based medicine.

"I think her most important work is the nibima plant," he added.

Her work, combined with her bond with Ampofo, Akosa said, has made Winn a kind of a living legend in Ghana. But she holds the hope of a bright future for the country as well, he said.

"It would be beneficial to this country, it would be beneficial to Africa and it would be beneficial to the world," he said of the drug. And the positives don't end there, he added.

"What's better than to have our own national product produced in this country?" he asked.

Even though she lives a world away from Ghana now, Winn agrees.

"It's become my second home," she said of Ghana.

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