Multi-Million Rand Award to UKZN Scientists for Cutting-Edge HIV Research
Professor Frank Tanser and Professor Tulio de Oliveira from UKZN’s Africa Centre for Health and Population studies were recently awarded a R16.5 million grant to fight HIV drug resistance and transmission in rural KwaZulu-Natal. The grant, funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC) Flagship Projects is part of the MRC’s strategy to sustain vibrant medical research in South Africa.
With the expansion of HIV/TB treatment in South Africa and over 1.8 million patients on antiretrovirals (ARVs), drug resistance is fast becoming a growing concern. Despite significantly rolling out ARVs country-wide, attention to the management of individual patients with resistance strains has been neglected. Drug resistance testing is considered expensive, time consuming and dependent on high-level technology (such as genetics, biotechnology and bioinformatics). However, the focus is likely to change now.
‘HIV drug resistance is a very serious problem in South Africa, and the recent advances in resistance testing technology and in understanding patterns of transmission will allow us not only to extend the life of patients failing treatment but also to produce policies of national interest that save hundreds of millions of rands in government programmes in the next few years,’ said de Oliveira.
Tanser and de Oliveira produced two groundbreaking studies that were published in the leading scientific journals, Science and Nature respectively. Tanser’s study found that widespread antiretroviral therapy curbed the rate of new HIV infections in Africa. de Oliveira’s study indicated that genomic data which can be used for the clinical management of patients with resistance strains and to understand patterns of HIV transmission, can now be produced cost effectively-locally.
This award will allow de Oliveira, a Bioinformatician, and Tanser, an Epidemiologist specialising in GIS, to work together to produce a unique framework to understand HIV-1 transmission and resistance. In addition, the award will allow them to collaborate closely with six other leading research groups based at UKZN (HEARD, K-RITH, HIV Pathogenesis Programme, Computer Science, Genetics and Infectious Diseases) to develop a framework to prevent HIV transmission and resistance.
Tanser added, ‘We are delighted to have received this award. It provides us with an unparalleled opportunity to understand patterns of HIV transmission and drug resistance in hyper-endemic southern African populations. The results will contribute directly to establishing the most effective treatment and prevention strategies in such settings.’
Professor Moses Chimbari, UKZN’s Dean of Research at the College of Health Sciences argues, ‘A multi-disciplinary approach is needed to understand these complex problems in order to translate research results into policies of national interest and to ensure that southern Africa’s HIV treatment programs are highly effective. In this regard we welcome this award and expect it to contribute substantial scientific insights into ways of halting and reversing the HIV epidemic.’
- Maryann Francis