Medical research institutes: foundations of world health

19 May 2002
IN SOME respects research institutes are modern versions of the best kind of medieval monastery in which scholarship was maintained and protected from turbulent outside environments, said Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Wieland Gevers, in an article for the general media to highlight World Health Day on April 8.

Titled Medical Research Institutes and World Health, Gevers' report traces the history and development of these indispensable research facilities into household names; names such as the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (now the Rockefeller University), the Pasteur Institute and the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne.

He continued: "There can be no doubt of the huge impact made by medical research institutes on health care throughout the world. The Rockefeller Institute was responsible for making advances such as blood groups and blood transfusion, the chemistry of DNA basis and, ultimately, its identification as the primary genetic material, cell culture, viruses and cancer-causing agents, amino acid analysis and solid peptide synthesis, to name a few.

"These Institutes are the big players. There are however, many smaller and lesser known research institutes designed to operate in the same way and Australia can be used as an example of a country where such institutes, perhaps five to 10 spread about the country, are beginning to emulate the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in areas such as heart disease and cancer.

"These institutes operate very effectively in close proximity to research universities, but they permit a concentration of effort and a particular modus operandi that quickens the pace and enhances the effectiveness of research that could not be possible without the characteristic features of institute functioning."

Gevers said that the development of research institutes at no less than three South African universities recently should be seen in the above light.

"The Institute for Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine at UCT, the research institute in the Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine in Durban and the research institute arising out of the residue of the South African Institute for Medical Research in Johannesburg, these hold much promise for capitalising on the special possibilities of institute research on the, by now, classic design."

He said that each institute was closely connected to a major health sciences faculty engaged in teaching, training, service and research and would draw on these for people, ideas and collaborations.

"These institute initiatives will require generous and targeted support from government and funding agencies and from all institutions that value scholarship and the solution of selected, hugely important problems in society through research and innovation."

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