UAB professor leads global effort against drug-resistant TB

New research facility in South Africa will host a lab led by Adrie Steyn, Ph.D., and include an exchange of students, post-docs.

In the African nation where the first extensively drug-resistant case of tuberculosis (XDR-TB) was found a few years ago, the doors soon will open on a new TB research facility. University of Alabama at Birmingham researcher Adrie Steyn, Ph.D., is the first scientist recruited to work at the facility (shown below).

Steyn, associate professor in the UAB Department of Microbiology, is the first investigator for the new KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute for Tuberculosis and HIV (K-RITH) in Durban, South Africa, a collaboration between the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. HHMI has committed $60 million to the initiative.

Worldwide, somebody dies every 10 seconds from TB, but the statistics are much worse in South Africa, Steyn says. “In some regions, the TB incidence is extremely high — about one in 100 people are affected. Many who are HIV-positive also have TB; obviously that is a major concern.

“We plan to study the mechanisms of micro-bacterial persistence, or dormancy. How does it escape drug therapy? How do we develop new vaccines? We will make full use of the resources at K-RITH,” Steyn says.

“It’s an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in my home country,” says Steyn, who was born in Cape Town, South Africa.

nicole_rendering_siteSteyn will retain his faculty position and lab at UAB, an affiliation that will foster the educational and research goals of both UAB and K-RITH. One possibility is an educational exchange for students, post-doctoral research fellows and other faculty between K-RITH and UAB.

“Sending students or post-docs overseas is an unique experience in training and changing perceptions of the disease by contact with it. Many of us in the United States work in infectious diseases, but we have no real-life experience seeing ways in which these diseases affect people in countries like South Africa, and this will allow that,” Steyn says.

Aisha Farhana, Ph.D., a post-doctoral student in Steyn’s lab, is looking forward to working with him at K-RITH.

“I have learned a great deal in the laboratory here. But the most important thing is to work closer to patients. We will have more facilities and a strong focus on TB, which is a global effort,” Farhana says.

A groundbreaking ceremony for the new facility will take place in mid-July in Durban. Steyn will be there to deliver a seminar. The health and science ministers for South Africa will attend, as will consular officials from the U.S. and several European countries.