NEW INSTITUTE FOR TUBERCULOSIS AND HIV RESEARCH ANNOUNCED FOR UKZN
A groundbreaking partnership between the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa will establish an international research centre focused on making major scientific contributions to the worldwide effort to control the devastating co-epidemic of tuberculosis and HIV and on training a new generation of scientists in Africa.
“This initiative adds a new dimension to HHMI’s commitment to international research,” said Professor Thomas R Cech, President of HHMI. “Our cross-Atlantic partnership reflects a shared view that direct and substantial investment in basic, clinical, and transnational research in the heart of the pandemics of HIV and TB will yield significant discoveries that will alleviate the human suffering caused by these diseases.”
The creation of the KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute for Tuberculosis and HIV (K-RITH) reflects nearly two years of discussion between HHMI and UKZN and was announced at simultaneous events in Washington, D.C. and in Durban. Professor Thomas Cech and Professor Malegapuru Makgoba made the official announcement of the US$60 million initiative funded over 10 years.
The event in Washington was streamed live to the event held in the Susser and Stein Seminar Room at the Medical School campus and to desktops of staff across the University’s five campuses.
“The HHMI-UKZN partnership is a major and unique investment into one of humanity’s major global health challenges, that of HIV and TB co-infection. The partnership is addressing a real problem that affects real people,” said Professor Makgoba.
The South African Ambassador to the U.S., His Excellency Welile Nhlapo, joined Professor Cech and Professor Makgoba for the announcement in Washington.
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 centre 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.
HHMI awarded seed grants totaling more than US$1.1 million to scientists in the U.S. and South Africa in 2008 as part of the long-term plan to develop K-RITH. This year, the Institute will provide an estimated US$3 million in grant funding and support construction of temporary laboratory facilities to support the TB research programme. The Institute has committed to providing substantial ongoing research support to K-RITH for 10 years.
“This initiative is one of the most challenging we have embarked upon in our international programme,’’ said Robert Tjian, who will become HHMI’s President on April 1. “I look forward to seeing how K-RITH realizes the potential for developing new strategies to combat the dual scourge of HIV and tuberculosis – both for South Africa and the entire world.”
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 tuberculosis in the world. Tuberculosis, a major problem in the pre-AIDs South Africa, 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 tuberculosis 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 HIV positive. When an outbreak of extensively drug resident 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.
“The projects defined in the K-RITH programme are there to address important research questions that would provide greater insights, understanding and the potential for solutions. All these should bring hope to people who are infected and affected,” said Professor Makgoba. “Most critically, this partnership is an investment into the future, in the training of a new generation of scientific leaders in this important area of health research.”
But the commitments by HHMI and UKZN go beyond the financial. Two leading HHMI investigators with longstanding expertise in TB and HIV research will participate actively in the programme: Dr William R Jacobs, Jr., of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Dr Bruce Walker of the Massachusetts General Hospital, who directs the HIV Pathogenesis Program in Durban, a joint initiative of Harvard University and UKZN. Dr Walker also directs the newly formed Ragon Institute, which will focus on development of a vaccine against HIV. UKZN scientists helping to direct and plan K-RITH are Professor Willem Sturm, a noted TB researcher and Dean of the Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine who serves as K-RITH’s Interim Director and Professor Salim Abdool Karim, UKZN Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research) and Director of the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa.
“K-RITH will leverage HHMI’s deep experience in fundamental research and its financial resources with UKZN’s own programs in HIV and TB research in the context of ongoing efforts to manage HIV and TB in KwaZulu-Natal,” said Professor Cech. “K-RITH scientists will have an unparalleled opportunity to collaborate with their colleagues at clinical sites in and around Durban in research efforts that focus on the diagnosis, pathogenesis, treatment, and prevention of TB and HIV.”