An infectious disease and molecular medicine institute, aimed at becoming an African centre of excellence into researching diseases such as HIV/AIDS, TB, Malaria and cancer, is in the final stages of being established at the University of Cape Town.

Professor Ahmed Azad, Director of Research at the Faculty of Health Sciences, said the Institute of Infectious Diseases and Molecular Medicine has set itself the ambitious goal of conducting medical research, relevant to local needs, that will compete with that done elsewhere in the world.

This it plans to do by forming the nucleus of work done by scientists and institutions from all over Africa.  

The Institute will concentrate on viral diseases (HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis), bacterial diseases (TB), parasitic diseases (malaria), major cancers, prevalent genetic disorders, non-communicable diseases and metabolic disorders.

“World-class research facilities such as that at the University of Cape Town need to concentrate on objectives of direct relevance to the health, economic and social needs of South Africa and the   region,” Azad said.

“With our limited resources and small scientific manpower, we cannot compete with the world on every front, and need to identify niche areas and areas of strength.”

Azad said UCT’s research activities needed to be consolidated into major initiatives centred on a small number of health care problems of national and regional importance.

He said the whole aim was to use resources in Africa for making new drugs and vaccines available to “the people of Africa”.  

Azad said UCT was negotiating with the universities of Stellenbosch and the Western Cape to draw on their facilities and expertise.  

The institute also plans to link up with other African universities,   specifically the seven southern and eastern African institutions that form part of the UCT-based University Science, Humanities and Engineering Partnerships in Africa programme.

Azad said that among the projects the institute has lined up for its corps of scientists are summer schools where researchers from the continent will receive training and research opportunities.

Expatriates who have moved to the US and Europe will also be called in to offer short courses and share their expertise with local scientists.  

Azad said the Institute also had one further aim, which is to stop the brain drain from South Africa and the rest of the continent.

“One of the reasons scientists go away is that we don’t have the research infrastructure to keep them here,” Azad said.

In terms of AIDS vaccines, Azad said the best possible option for the developing world was prevention, and the availability of an affordable and effective preventive vaccine.

Despite almost 20 years of research, Azad said there was still no vaccine in sight.

He said only a handful of candidate vaccines have gone into phase II clinical trials and none of these were likely to provide protection against strains prevalent in South Africa or India.

“Vaccine research in South Africa is rightly directed to Clade C strains of HIV. There is an urgency to produce a prototype Clade C vaccine for clinical trials and this will undoubtedly yield much needed information.”

However, Azad warned that HIV was even more variable that the influenza virus, and a vaccine against a single strain of HIV was unlikely to be protective against other strains even with the same clade.  

He said there was also an urgent need to find therapeutic vaccines and drugs that stopped the progression of the virus to full blown AIDS among the 36 million people already infected with HIV and the huge numbers of people who will continue to be infected in the future.

“Such therapeutic interventions should aim to prevent the destruction of the body’s immune system and reactivate it.

“Scientific assessment and screening of Africa’s natural product libraries and traditional medicines to find new affordable and safe drugs that slow the progression to AIDS should become a regional priority,” he urged.

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