$60 m for tuberculosis and HIV research in South Africa

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A groundbreaking partnership between the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) in South Africa will establish an international research center focused on making major scientific contributions to the worldwide effort to control the devastating co-epidemic of tuberculosis (TB) and HIV and on training a new generation of scientists in Africa.

HHMI, a non-profit medical research organization that ranks as one of the nation’s largest philanthropies, has committed $60 million to the initiative over the next 10 years.

William R. Jacobs, Jr., Ph.D., an HHMI investigator and professor of microbiology & immunology, and of genetics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, will be one of two leading HHMI investigators actively engaged in KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute for Tuberculosis and HIV (K-RITH). There are approximately 350 HHMI investigators, a group that includes 13 Nobel Prize winners and 124 members of the National Academy of Sciences.

South Africa has more residents infected with HIV than any other nation in the world. By 2007, the nation accounted for 17 percent of the global HIV disease burden ? an estimated 5.4 million people are infected ? and it has one of the highest per capita rates of TB in the world. A major problem in pre-AIDs South Africa, TB emerged as a public health crisis in its own right, particularly with the emergence of both multi-drug resistant (MDR) and extensively drug resistant (XDR) strains of TB in persons already infected with HIV.

KwaZulu-Natal province, home to more than 10 million people, bears an even greater burden of disease than the nation as a whole and as much as 40 percent of the population may be positive for HIV. When an outbreak of extensively drug-resistant or XDR-TB was reported in the rural area of Tugela Ferry in 2006, the region became a focus of international concern even as additional cases of XDR-TB surfaced elsewhere in the world.

Dr. Jacobs, a pioneer in using molecular genetic approaches to control TB, says, “This is an extraordinary opportunity to work closely with clinicians, students and other researchers with the goal of developing faster diagnostic tools and better chemotherapies and vaccines for TB, MDR-TB, XDR-TB and HIV. Joining forces with those at the heart of these expanding epidemics will help us to address them more efficiently and effectively by bridging the gap between the bench and the bedside.”

“Einstein is dedicated to promoting collaboration within the scientific community,” says Allen M. Spiegel, M.D., The Marilyn and Stanley M. Katz Dean of Einstein. “By working cooperatively with HHMI, the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and Nelson R. Mandela College of Medicine, we will be better equipped to identify breakthroughs that will have important implications for people suffering from TB and HIV around the world.”

The institute will be located on the campus of the Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine in Durban in a six-story facility that will include two floors of high-level biosafety (BSL-3) laboratories equipped for TB research. HHMI will provide $20 million (R218 million) toward the construction of the new building with UKZN and LIFE Lab, a biotechnology center of the government of South Africa, making substantial commitments for the project. The total cost of the project ? which will be integrated with the existing Doris Duke Medical Research Institute ? is estimated at about $30 million (R308 million). Construction is expected to begin in late September.

The HHMI and UKZN commitment to K-RITH includes the active engagement of leading investigators with longstanding expertise in TB and HIV research, Dr. Jacobs and HHMI Investigator Bruce D. Walker, M.D. of the Massachusetts General Hospital who directs the HIV Pathogenesis Program in Durban, a joint initiative of Harvard University and UKZN. Drs. Jacobs and Walker serve on the K-RITH steering committee with Salim S. Abdool Karim, UKZN Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research) and director of the Center for the AIDS Program of Research in South Africa, and A. Willem Sturm, a noted TB researcher and dean of the Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine and interim director of K-RITH.

Source: Albert Einstein College of Medicine, USA

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