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Health Innovation

Max Planck Society strengthens research in infectious diseases

Max Planck Society strengthens research in infectious diseases

The Max Planck Society has established Max Planck research groups in Africa for the first time. Alex Sigal and Thumbi Ndung'u have been appointed to head up the two groups of the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology. The two researchers specialised in HIV will be funded for five up to a maximum of nine years, and will conduct basic research in HIV and tuberculosis. The research groups will benefit from their proximity to the infection centres. "Tuberculosis and HIV are life-and-death issues in southern Africa. If we want to cure these diseases, we have to conduct research right in the countries where the greatest number of people are afflicted. The findings from the laboratory and clinic can go hand-in-hand with great success – from the hospital bed to the lab bench and back again, so to speak," emphasised the president of the Max Planck Society, Peter Gruss.

The two research groups will be located at the newly founded KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute for Tuberculosis and HIV in Durban, South Africa. The institute is a joint project of the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in the USA and is dedicated exclusively to research in HIV and tuberculosis because the combination of these two infectious diseases has become a menacing threat in South Africa. Due, in part, to their weakened immune systems, many HIV patients also become infected with tuberculosis. Doctors are thus looking for new treatment paths in various on-site clinical studies.

By contrast, very little basic research has taken place in South Africa up to now. The Max Planck Society is making headway here and provides explicit support: "Only by closely integrating clinical studies and basic research can the challenges posed by HIV and tuberculosis be overcome. Our research in Germany will thus benefit directly from these working groups. It is really a win-win situation," said Stefan Kaufmann, head of the Department of Immunology at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin.

In his research, Alex Sigal focuses primarily on the question of how cancer or HIV is able to circumvent treatment with medications through a sort of retreat zone. Working as a scientist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and at the California Institute of Technology, he has developed computer models of disease reservoirs and compared them with living cells. In his research, he discovered that the transmission of viruses between cells reduces the effectiveness of HIV medications. As a next step, Sigal would like to transfer his results to new classes of HIV medications known as protease inhibitors and antibodies. Moreover, it is hoped that the analysis of lymph tissue will also demonstrate how HI viruses in the lymph nodes are transferred from one cell to another. These results could also improve the effectiveness of treatments for diseases such as tuberculosis or malaria. In the future, he especially wants to investigate how tuberculosis pathogens become resistant to medication by falling into a kind of hibernation known as dormancy.

Thumbi Ndung'u has conducted research to date at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He is particularly interested in the factors that affect the transmission of HI viruses. Born in Kenya, he would like to find out which factors make certain individuals especially receptive to the viruses, and what makes the viruses resistant to medication. He is also investigating how the various parts of the immune system fight against the pathogens. With his new research group, he wants to investigate the immune defences of HIV-infected tuberculosis patients.

You can find more information on the basic research in Africa on the pages of the Max Planck Society.