June 13, 2005
|Photo courtesy of St. Jude Children's Hospital
St. Jude Children's Research Hospital is located in Memphis, Tenn.
By Andra Stevens*
Zimbabwe (UMNS)--Researchers from St. Jude Children's Research Hospital
in Memphis, Tenn. say Africa University and Zimbabwe are good potential
partners in an initiative to test the effectiveness of an HIV vaccine
on people in Africa.
"This would be a first for Africa," said Dr.
Karen Slobod, co-leader of the HIV Therapeutics and Vaccine Development
team working at the Children's Infectious Disease Center at St Jude.
and her colleagues have been working on the vaccine for a number of
years. Described as bold and ambitious in terms of what it hopes to
accomplish, the vaccine is designed to cause the immune system to
respond to multiple strains of the virus from different parts of the
world. It is also to offer protection against infection from those
strains and others that may develop as the virus mutates.
have completed much of the phase one testing — safety trials to
determine how well people tolerate the component drugs. They are now
ready to move to phase two: investigating whether or not the vaccine
actually protects people who are at risk from becoming infected with
HIV. The research team wants to run simultaneous vaccine trials with
volunteers in the United States and in Africa.
"The clock is
ticking, so why not now and why not Africa," said Slobod. "We believe
that human trials in Africa that look at vaccine effectiveness, even
when done with much smaller groups and over a shorter time period, can
be very useful."
The three doctors, Slobod, Pat Flynn and Julia
Hurwitz, visited Zimbabwe from June 1-4. Their visit was part of a
three-country trip to identify the best testing site for the vaccine in
Before arriving in Zimbabwe, the team evaluated
proposed vaccine trial sites in South Africa and Malawi. Their last stop
was Mutare, Zimbabwe's fourth largest city, and United
Methodist-related Africa University.
The team toured local
counseling and treatment centers to determine if there was a large
enough pool of people who are HIV negative and who might volunteer to
participate in the proposed vaccine trial. Team members also assessed
the facilities and community support for the trial and came away
impressed by what they had encountered.
"It's certainly more developed than Malawi," said Flynn." At the Old
Mutare Hospital, (a 68-bed facility located on the United Methodist
Church Mission across the road from Africa University), the wards that
we saw were cleaner and more organized. The other thing that impressed
me is that in this country, more so than in any other place where we
went, it was Africans taking care of Africans and Africans running
|A UMNS photo by Andra Stevens
Dr. Peter Fasan (left) and Dr. Pat Flynn, of St. Jude Children's Hospital, talk about partnering with physicians in Zimbabwe.
During the visit, the St. Jude team met with health
officials as well as provincial and municipal leaders. More than 75
physicians, nurses and pharmacists met with the research team from St.
Jude. Many pledged to support the vaccine trial if Mutare is chosen as
"We want to do all that we can to make this project a
success," said Dr. Akinjide Obonyo, a family physician. "The people here
are doing so much with very little by way of resources, because they
are committed to making a change in the outlook of this disease."
University is spearheading the push to bring the St. Jude vaccine trial
to its home community of Mutare, where current estimates are that about
a quarter of the population is HIV positive.
"The way we put it
to the City of Mutare is that 25 percent of the people have HIV, and
this vaccine is for the 75 percent who don't have it and are at risk,"
said Dr. Abigail Kangwende. "We need to concentrate on those people, as
much as we are on those who are infected, if we want to stop the disease
from devastating this continent."
Through its health sciences
faculty, Africa University hopes to be at the center of the study as the
local collaborating institution. The university already has outreach
programs dealing with HIV/AIDS prevention and education, impact
mitigation and primary health care. It is offering access to computers,
office and laboratory space in its new health sciences building for the
Other potential partners in Mutare include the
provincial hospital, city and suburban clinics that do voluntary testing
and counseling, and the United Methodist hospital. All are keen to
Public health physicians like Kangwende are a key
element in the case for staging the vaccine trial in Mutare. Kangwende,
along with leading Zimbabwean experts such as Dr. Exnevia Gomo, the
principal medical research officer in the HIV unit of the National
Institute of Health Research and Paul Ndebele, the national coordinator
of the Medical Research Council of Zimbabwe, are building support for
the research in the community.
"A healthy person who volunteers
to participate in a research study of this kind may not benefit
personally, but their participation and what results from it are really a
gift to humankind," Ndebele said.
The proposed vaccine trial is
the most recent development in a long-term collaboration between Africa
University and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, which has included
faculty and staff exchanges, training and capacity building.
health professionals from Zimbabwe visited St. Jude through a
fellowship that offers training and exposure to new knowledge. Visiting
faculty members from St. Jude
have done short-term teaching at the university and are assisting the health sciences faculty in equipping its new building.
*Stevens is director of information and public affairs at Africa University.
News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.