R110-million for SA AIDS research centre

05 August 2002
THE National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States has made an US$11-million (about R110-million) grant to launch the new Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA), in which UCT is to play a major role.

The five-year Comprehensive International Programme for Research on AIDS (CIPRA) grant will support a collaboration of South African investigators conducting research on HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment. Professor Salim Abdool Karim of the University of Natal has been appointed as CAPRISA Principal Investigator, while UCT's Associate Professor Carolyn Williamson will head one of the Centre's major research projects.

Abdool Karim will co-ordinate a multidisciplinary team of scientists from the University of Natal, UCT, the University of the Western Cape (UWC), the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD), Columbia University in New York and AngloGold's Aurum Health Research Unit. CAPRISA has set itself the following goals over the next five years:
  • To undertake globally relevant and locally responsive prevention and treatment research that contributes to understanding HIV pathogenesis, evolving epidemiology, and developing strategies for AIDS care provision in resource-constrained settings;
  • To build local research infrastructure and capacity in virology, immunology, clinical infectious diseases, bioinformatics, epidemiology and biostatistics; and
  • To enhance and strengthen the critical mass of skilled researchers in South Africa, particularly young scientists from historically disadvantaged communities, through well-established training links with Columbia University.
CAPRISA will kick off two major projects this year; the first a study of acute infection in HIV sub-type C (common in southern Africa and Asia), and the second a trial to determine the timing for the introduction of anti-retroviral therapy (ARV) in patients co-infected with HIV and tuberculosis. For the study on acute infection, Williamson has brought together a host of researchers and associates from UCT, the universities of Natal and Stellenbosch, the South African National Bioinformatics Institute (SANBI) at UWC, and the NICD.

At UCT's Department of Medical Virology, contributors over the next five years will include Williamson's deputy, Dr Joanne van Harmelen, as well as postgraduate researchers and associates Jandre Grobler, Cecilia Rademeyer, Helba Bredell, Joanne Gilfillan, Molefe Machaba, Brandon Londt and Lucky Malaza.

Carl van Heerden of the University of Stellenbosch will also lend his expertise in setting up an HIV sequencing unit at UCT that, together with SANBI, will support the Centre. This project will attempt to shed light on the very early events in HIV infection to identify the factors responsible for the initial control of virus replication, Williamson explains. "Essentially, what we're looking at is what happens to the virus in the early stages of infection."

The research will also tackle many of the scientific questions around what makes a vaccine work – or not – and how to measure the outcome of a vaccine. Much of the group's research will focus on the infection "set point", ie the point where the viral load stabilises after acute infection has been controlled by the body's immune system.

"We can't measure the impact of a vaccine unless we have a good understanding of what the set point is – it varies from person to person – and what factors are involved in lowering this set point," notes Williamson.

It is in producing this basic research that CAPRISA will hopefully make the greatest impact, she adds. "CAPRISA is providing important support to the South African AIDS Vaccine Initiative (SAAVI), which makes and tests vaccines, by doing this kind of fundamental research – it is essentially building fundamental scientific capacity."

The collaboration will hopefully also enable local institutions to create a core group of researchers – especially black researchers – in this important field, Williamson says.

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