A vast South African AIDS research initiative is growing even larger with today’s launch of a $60 million dollar project to attack the deadly link between the HIV virus and tuberculosis.
At a news conference in Washington, DC, scientists from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, announced the 10-year initiative, to be centered in a new research facility on the Durban campus of the university’s Nelson Mandela Medical School.
That will take forward an effort with deep Boston roots in the AIDS research laboratories of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Researchers from MGH and the medical school have worked on AIDS/HIV with Durban colleagues for a decade, led by MGH AIDS researcher Bruce D. Walker. He is also an investigator at the Howard Hughes institute and is closely involved in the new AIDS-TB project.
Last month, Walker's team received a $100 million gift from a Cambridge software entrepreneur, Phillip Terrence Ragon, to create a new institute to try to discover an AIDS vaccine. That work relies in part on research being conducted in Durban. More than five million South Africans are infected with the virus, accounting for 17 percent of the world’s HIV population.
The new Howard Hughes-funded project will focus in part on the worsening incidence of patients suffering from both HIV and TB, and especially the outbreak of extensively drug resistant tuberculosis among HIV victims. That very rare form of TB burst into an epidemic in Tugela Ferry in KwaZulu-Natal Province in 2006, where more than 200 people were infected in one town alone and most died, along with a number of hospital staffers.
Scientists have long wrestled with the complex problem of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis. The problem of extensively drug resistant TB is even more vexing because it often occurs in patients who have already contracted and been treated for tuberculosis.
Dr. Salim S. Abdool Karim, who is director of the Center for the AIDS Program of Research in South Africa, said one aspect of study will be the causes of recurrent tuberculosis, and the extent to which AIDS patients crowded into waiting rooms of clinics are spreading the infection.
He noted that tuberculosis was not as serious in KwaZulu-Natal as elsewhere in the country until the AIDS epidemic exploded in the 1990s. In the past, TB occurred in about 200 people of 100,000 in the province, but in recent years that number has soared to 800 per 100,000, Karim said in a telephone interview.
What’s more, the patient population has changed dramatically because of the convergence of the two infectious diseases, he said. Most TB victims now are much younger and are also infected with HIV compared with the older villagers who tended to contract TB in the past.
The new $20 million, six-story research institute will include two floors of high-level biosafety labs. The lab will be integrated with the Doris Duke Medical Research Institute that Walker helped establish at the medical school. The other $40 million in Howard Hughes funding will go toward research, training and related treatment programs over 10 years.
Karim said that in addition to researching the nature of recurrent TB, scientists will study problems in diagnosing TB in AIDS patients, which is especially complex, as well as understanding the genetic factors in drug resistance. In addition, researchers will study HIV immunology, and try to learn why HIV leads to more aggressive tuberculosis.
The research will be combined with patient treatment at three hospitals in the heart of the AIDS crisis in the province as well as extensive training of research and clinical staff to improve the skills base in South Africa.
About this blog
About James F. SmithJim Smith came home to his native Boston in 2002 to become the Boston Globe's foreign editor after spending 22 years abroad. He was previously based in Buenos Aires and Mexico City for the LA Times, and in Johannesburg, Tokyo and The Hague for the AP. In 2007 he became the Globe's national political editor, coordinating presidential campaign coverage. He is a Yale graduate, and has an MBA. He is married to Maxine Hart and has two sons, Matthew and Daniel.
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