Dr. Samuel Achilefu

Advisory Board Member

Prof. Samuel Achilefu, born to Nigerian parents in 1963; his father worked with hospitals and clinics in northern Nigeria until the civil war broke out. He was about five years old then when his family was forced to move from Northern Nigeria to thesoutheast, leaving all they had to start life anew.

Prof. Achilefu’s research interest areas include molecular optical imaging of tumors and angiogenesis, as well as the design and development of new molecular probes and nanomaterials for imaging the expression of aberrant genes, proteins, and other pathophysiologic processes. He is also interested in the specific delivery of imaging agents and drugs to target cell organelles or tissue.

Prof. Achilefu has been variously honored for his ground-breaking efforts. In 2014, he was given the prestigious St. Louis Award. Two years later, he became the first recipient of the Breast Cancer Research Programme Distinguished Investigator Award, a $4.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense, for his research efforts in using U.V. light, which is invisible to the naked eye, and a photosensitive chemotherapy drug and the body’s immune system to target and obliterate breast cancer cells.

This landmark approach operates with the principle that when certain drugs are exposed to U.V. light, they break down, giving off toxic radicals that kill the cancer cell from within. The implication of this is that oncologists do not have to give a chemotherapy dose that is very toxic to patients; instead, they can provide an amount that only becomes toxic when inside a cancer cell. The work, known as photo-immunotherapy, has finished basic stages and is in animal model testing.

Achilefu had his primary and secondary education in “some village schools” in southeast Nigeria, but was fortunate to be one of five students to win a French government scholarship to attend graduate school in France, where he received a Ph.D. in molecular and materials chemistry at the University of Nancy. He had his post-doctoral studies at Oxford University, training on the “interface between chemistry and hematology, working on developing blood substitutes.”

Prof Achilefu moved from Oxford to St. Louis, the U.S. in 1993 to join the nascent Discovery Research Department at Mallinckrodt Medical Inc. In 2001, he joined the Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology at Washington University. He is currently a Professor of Medicine at Washington University School of Medicine, Division of radiological sciences and a co-director at Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Centre for Oncologic Imaging Programme. He is also the director of the Optical Radiology Lab (ORL) at Washington University in St. Louis.

He is married to Nnena Achilefu, and both are blessed with two children.