"We need more basic research in Africa"

The Max Planck Society, in cooperation with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, is establishing a research group in Durban, South Africa

March 23, 2012

For the first time, the Max Planck Society is establishing a Max Planck research group in Africa. The new research group of the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology is located at the National Research Institute for Tuberculosis and HIV in Durban, South Africa, and is scheduled to start operating in 2012. Stefan H.E. Kaufmann, Director at the Max Planck Institute, discusses why it is important to pursue basic research on infectious diseases in Africa.

Why is the Max Planck Society setting up a research group in South Africa?

Stefan Kaufmann: In setting up a Max Planck Research Group, our aim is to promote basic research on HIV and tuberculosis in Africa. Scientists will benefit from the physical proximity to the centers of infection. Knowledge from laboratory and clinic can then have a mutually stimulating effect, because up to now, mainly clinical studies were conducted in Africa. They wanted to investigate the effectiveness of drugs against infectious diseases that are widespread there. In South Africa and other countries in Africa, there is a diabolical connection between two of the most dangerous infections; the high number of AIDS patients has also meant a resurgence of tuberculosis. As a result of their weakened immune systems, HIV patients are particularly vulnerable to tuberculosis pathogens.

Why did you choose Durban?

An important criterion was the fact that a new research institute dedicated to investigating HIV and tuberculosis is being built there. The KwaZulu Natal Research Institute for Tuberculosis and HIV is a project run by the University of KwaZulu Natal and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in the US. The Max Planck Research Group will be based at this institute and will find excellent working conditions there. Durban also has a number of well-equipped clinics where patients with a form of tuberculosis that is resistant to current drugs can be treated.

What will the Research Group be looking at?

It will conduct basic research into HIV or tuberculosis at the highest scientific level.

When will the Research Group be starting its work?

The application and selection procedures are currently under way. We hope that the Group will be ready to start by the end of 2012, by which time the new institute should also be completed.

The only tuberculosis vaccine currently available is over 90 years old. What makes the development of vaccines against tuberculosis so difficult? The problem lies in activating a different arm of the immune defense, namely the cellular immune response. Effective vaccines boost the production of proteins, so-called antibodies that bind to pathogens and then destroy them. The tuberculosis pathogen, however, is a bacterium that hides inside cells in the body and therefore can’t be reached by antibodies. Our aim is thus to stimulate the cellular immune response of the body because it can then also track down the pathogens in the cells and render them harmless. This, however, is regulated more strongly by the body. Matters are compounded by the fact that we must be better than nature in developing vaccines, because the body can keep the bacteria in check for a long time – but it can no longer get rid of them.

How could the development of new vaccines and drugs be accelerated?

A very important point is the improved combination of basic research and clinical studies. At present, there are few points of contact, so the previously rigid scheme of pre-clinical and clinical research must be deconstructed. If, for example, an active ingredient shows unexpected effects in a patient, this must be quickly reverted to basic research.

How long will it be before a new vaccine against tuberculosis reaches the market?

Our own vaccine candidate is in phase II of clinical development at Stellenbosch, South Africa. A total of twelve vaccine candidates are currently being clinically tested. If all tests run successfully, the first could be used in 2016.

Interview: Harald Rösch

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