Fighting African fungal infections: the world's first international research centre at UCT

21 December 2016 | Story by Newsroom

The world's first international research centre for tackling fungal infections, which kill around 1.3 million people globally every year, has been set up in South Africa by the University of Aberdeen in conjunction with UCT.

The majority of global deaths related to fungal infections happen in Africa, particularly sub-Saharan Africa. In this part of the world, fungal infections contribute to between 600,000 to one million deaths – more than malaria and around the same number of deaths as tuberculosis.

In sub-Saharan Africa, around 50% of people diagnosed with invasive fungal infections die as a result of the infection. For example, in 2008, there were 1 million cases of cryptococcal meningitis in patients with HIV/AIDS, resulting in more than 500,000 related deaths.

Now the University of Aberdeen's internationally recognised Aberdeen Fungal Group (AFG) is to establish the world's first research centre focused on tackling these diseases in Africa.

The £600,000 University of Aberdeen AFGrica Unit will be based at UCT's Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine (IDM), headed by Professor Valerie Mizrahi. The unit will give the internationally recognised AFG a centre of operations in Africa where they can work in collaboration with UCT experts to establish research programmes that can target the priority areas in fungal diseases that are relevant to the continent.

“Fungal infections are understudied and under-diagnosed compared with other infectious diseases, despite their contribution to so many deaths every year,” explains Professor Gordon Brown from the University of Aberdeen Fungal Group, who is leading the setup of the AFGrica Unit.

“Fungal infections kill more people in Africa than anywhere else on the planet. The AFGrica Unit is a unique opportunity to address the urgent need to improve basic knowledge and clinical management of fungal infections in Africa.

“This research and training centre gives us a foothold in Africa and the opportunity to collaborate with our colleagues at UCT to create a truly unique facility that will advance research to combat fungal killers, and – just as importantly – to train more African experts specialising in this area.” 

The establishment of the AFGrica Unit in the IDM will enhance the excellent clinical and basic research that is taking placed on cryptococcal meningitis and other fungal diseases in the Faculty of Health Sciences at UCT, says Professor Bongani Mayosi, Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences: “This initiative will also contribute to the training of a new generation of African scientific leaders, who will produce high-quality research to combat the scourge of fungal infections in Africa.”

Professor Mark Nicol, head of UCT's Division of Medical Microbiology in the Department of Pathology, and member of the IDM, agrees. "This is a wonderful opportunity to develop a centre of excellence for fungal infections on the African continent,” he says. “We will have the opportunity to extend the pioneering clinical research on fungal infections taking place at UCT, by collaborating with scientists studying the biology and immunology of fungal infections at the world-leading centre in Aberdeen.”

The development supports the ongoing objectives and activities of the prestigious MRC Centre for Medical Mycology, set up at the University of Aberdeen in February 2016. It also builds on an existing Wellcome Trust-funded Strategic Award (led by the AFG), where PhD students from low- and middle-income nations (including Africa) are trained in Aberdeen and other medical mycology centres in the rest of the UK. Upon obtaining their degree, these students return home with their new skills to help address critical fungal research and training needs in their own countries.

“The expertise of our world-leading Aberdeen Fungal Group is recognised across the globe,” says Professor Sir Ian Diamond, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen says, “and this important partnership with the University of Cape Town will put our experts on the front line in the fight against these infections that currently prove deadly to so many people, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.”

Read the media release...

First published on the Faculty of Health Sciences website.
UCT Research and Innovation

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