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Pressespiegel, Südafrika

20. März 2009

US medical institute and UKZN set up centre to research TB, HIV

A PARTNERSHIP between the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in the US and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) will establish an international research centre focused on contributing to the effort to control the “co-epidemic” of tuberculosis (TB) and HIV, and on training African scientists.

The two institutions announced yesterday that the HHMI had committed $60m (R578m) to the project, with $20m (R192m) going to the construction of facilities for the KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute for Tuberculosis and HIV (K-RITH), and the rest disbursed in tranches of about $4m a year over the next 10 years.
 “Our cross-Atlantic partnership reflects a shared view that direct and substantial investment in basic, clinical and translational 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,” said Nobel laureate Prof Thomas Cech, president of HHMI.

The HHMI and UKZN would jointly recruit a permanent director for the centre, with the recruitment committee being chaired by former dean of the Harvard School of Public Health Prof Barry Bloom, said UKZN spokesman Prof Dansarath Chetty.

Two leading HHMI researchers — Prof William Jacobs of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at New York’s Yeshiva University, and Prof Bruce Walker, director of the Partners AIDS Research Centre at Massachusetts General Hospital and a Harvard Medical School professor — will also participate in the project.

But hanging over the creation of the institute, which will be located in R308m premises at the Nelson Mandela School of Medicine, is the spectre of allegations that UKZN management, particularly vice- chancellor Prof William Makgoba, is not committed to academic freedom.

The university has been criticised repeatedly over the past two years — including by a group of more than 30 international academics from universities including Stanford, Oxford, Chicago, New York, London and Denmark’s Roskilde University — for a lack of commitment to academic freedom because academics criticising university management have faced disciplinary action.

Cech, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1989, was not immediately available for comment.

K-RITH’s creation is the result of nearly two years of discussion between HHMI and UKZN and the partnership was “a major and unique investment into one of humanity’s major global health challenges, that of HIV and TB co-infection,” Makgoba said. “It will address a real problem that affects real people.”

South African ambassador to the US Welile Nhlapo joined Cech and Makgoba for the partnership announcement in Washington yesterday while a simultaneous event was held in Durban.

TB was a major problem in the pre-AIDS SA and has hit the headlines lately with the emergence of the multi-drug resident and extensively drug resistant (XDR-TB) strains of the disease in people already infected with HIV.

KwaZulu Natal is the centre of the South African AIDS pandemic, with as much as 40% of its population of more than 10-million people HIV-positive. The province became the focus of international concern when an outbreak of XDR-TB was reported in the rural area of Tugela Ferry in 2006.

K-RITH, which will be integrated into the university’s Doris Duke Medical Research Institute, will include two floors of high-level biosafety laboratories equipped for TB research, and the HHMI is to provide $20m (R192m) towards the construction of the R308m facility, with further funds coming from the university and LIFElab , a government biotechnology centre which has put forward R10m, said Chetty.

Last year, HHMI awarded seed grants totaling more than $1,1m to scientists in the US and SA as part of the long-term plan to develop K-RITH.

This year, the institute will provide an estimated $3m in grant funding and support construction of temporary laboratory facilities to aid 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.

Education Correspondent




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