February 22, 2013

New opportunities arise for research travel to Africa

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Faculty, postdocs and students from the University of Alabama at Birmingham now have more chances to study the HIV and tuberculosis epidemics in Africa. A new round of funding will support travel to and from the KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute for Tuberculosis and HIV, the premier Howard Hughes-funded research center in Durban, South Africa, which has the goal of fostering research collaborations.

The UAB Infectious Disease, Global Health and Vaccine Steering Committee this week issued a request for applications from faculty and postdocs interested in travel between K-RITH and UAB.   

KRITH sRay L. Watts, M.D., formerly dean of the School of Medicine and the new UAB president, had designated more than $100,000 in funds from AMC21, UAB Medicine’s strategic plan, to fund new initiatives proposed by the steering committee. Global health has been deemed an area where continued investment can solidify UAB’s leadership position, prepare it to win interdisciplinary research grants and help it to recruit exceptional students.

According to the World Health Organization, 34 million people are infected with HIV globally, with 1.8 million annual deaths and 60 percent of all cases occurring in Africa. Tuberculosis is second only to HIV as a global killer, with nearly 14 million people infected and 1.4 million deaths each year. The largest number of new TB cases occurred in Asia in 2011, accounting for 60 percent of new cases globally, but sub-Saharan Africa had the greatest proportion of new cases per population. A third of people with HIV also have TB, and HIV infection often turns TB from a dormant infection into a deadly, active one. 

“We hope to build further educational, professional and research ties by helping our community travel to and from K-RITH, an institution on the front lines of the battle against HIV and drug-resistant forms of TB,” said Troy Randall, Ph.D., the Claude Bennett Scholar in the Division of Clinical Immunology and Rheumatology within the UAB School of Medicine. Randall co-directs the AMC21 Infectious Diseases, Global Health and Vaccines Steering Committee along with Michael Saag, M.D., professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at UAB and among the founders of the 1917 Clinic.

“When UAB students and researchers travel to Durban, or K-RITH researchers come to Birmingham, they have unparalleled experiences and benefit from real-world fieldwork,” said Randall. “First-hand exposure to the toll taken by poverty and epidemics in Africa has a profound impact. Researchers return with a renewed sense of mission as they seek to contribute to the design of future vaccines and treatments.”

K-RITH represents a collaboration between the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the University of KwaZulu-Natal, with support from the South African government. Its mission is to conduct outstanding basic and clinical research on tuberculosis and HIV, and the combination of a high local disease burden and advanced laboratory facilities makes it uniquely equipped to do so.

Anchoring the UAB-K-RITH partnership onsite at K-RITH will be Andries Steyn, Ph.D., associate professor in the UAB Department of Microbiology. He was the first investigator recruited to join K-RITH in June 2011, and he retains his UAB faculty position.

Travel to collaborate

The Travel Award initiative is designed to get faculty from K-RITH and UAB to meet, exchange ideas, give seminars and potentially set up collaborations, and it will pay for travel awards, pilot projects and an HIV/TB symposium at UAB featuring reports from K-RITH researchers and collaborators.

Travel awards pay for travel, food and boarding for a short visit (up to five days) from K-RITH to UAB or vice versa. The amount is not set, because some will go for a quick preliminary visit, and others will propose to learn or teach a skill set while there.

Interested faculty must identify their counterparts at the other site and prepare a travel and work itinerary, then apply to the committee for funds. The application deadline is March 15, 2013, with review of applications immediately thereafter. All supported travel must be completed by October 1, 2013. Those interested can apply online.

One goal of the preliminary travel is to help researchers set up the next component of the new program: joint UAB/K-RITH research pilot projects. This funding stream would cover travel and research expenses for projects that collect data and analyze patient samples, steps that will strengthen attempts afterward to apply for grants to continue the work. 

Applications for Pilot Project Awards should describe the overall research objective, how it will benefit the labs, both institutions and the aims of the proposed experiments.

In a separate but related program, K-RITH has sponsored a 10-week summer internship program for undergraduates, graduate students, public health students and medical students. That application deadline, however, was Feb. 11.

Finally, the new funding will also support a symposium with a TB and HIV research theme called the 5th Southeastern Mycobacteria Meeting. It will feature yet-to-be-determined speakers from UAB and K-RITH, and it will be held in UAB’s Heritage Hall on January 24-26, 2014.