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Cambridge Infectious Diseases

An Interdisciplinary Research Centre at the University of Cambridge

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Cambridge in Africa

Cambridge in Africa

AnnetteeCambridge has a long history of links with Africa: since Professor Anthony Butterworth FRS established the initial links, the Schistosomiasis research group (Department of Pathology) has had continuous programme funding to work in East Africa for at least 30 years. David Dunne explains: “we worked in endemic populations in rural Kenya for a long time, and then our Kenyan colleagues decided that they needed to help the Ugandans, who were recovering from the Civil War. All our projects over the last twenty years have been a joint effort: we have Kenyans and Britons working in Uganda, Ugandans working in Kenya, and so on. It became clear that as there were more and more collaborators, the work needed to be done in Africa by Africans, not just ‘academic tourists’. An increasingly important part of our work is to promote African science and develop better links.”

 

So why should Cambridge researchers consider taking their research to Africa?Fun parts of African research

For most infectious diseases there are very interesting, if not unique, comparative elements to look for in different settings. David Dunne points out that researching disease in Africa is not just a matter of combating those diseases which cause terrible economic and health damage; it is also a matter of studying basic processes.  A huge amount can be learnt from studying chronic diseases in disease endemic areas. An example is the relationship between parasitic worm infections and allergy.  Allergic diseases are now reaching  epidemic levels in the developed world and receive many millions of pounds of research funding. IgE is central to allergy research, but IgE evolved to protect mammals, including man, against worm infections and metazoan parasites. Researching IgE in the developed world is looking at an almost peripheral phenomenon, i.e. where it has recently gone wrong.  To understand why IgE exists, doing the job it evolved to do and how it is regulated in its natural role (helminth infections), the answers can only be found in regions like rural Africa where these infections are highly endemic.

For studying zoonotic infections, James Wood observes that there are huge advantages to working in a country where there is a close human-wildlife interface. There are regional hotspots of infectious disease emergence, and the tropics are certainly more likely to be a source of infectious disease than the developed world. It becomes necessary to work in those regions in order to work effectively in that area of research.”Africa quote - research

It is important, however, to not just exploit what is available in those countries, but to also give support to local collaborators. Academic linkage is something that Cambridge can offer.  The advantages of closer links are immediate: the closer the link, the easier it becomes to do the work.  The programme is already working. Pauline Essah explains that many African researchers  perceive Cambridge to be inaccessible, but since  she begun matching THRiVE fellows to appropriate researchers in Cambridge, other researchers based at THRiVE institutions have  been asking to be put in touch with Cambridge researchers for possible collaborations.

What opportunities are there for Cambridge researchers in Africa?

Much of the infectious disease research in Cambridge (on trypanosomaisis, leishmaniasis and schistosomiasis and other neglected diseases to name a few) could link in with Africa - there are far more opportunities than are currently being exploited.  When presented with the opportunity of working in Africa and collaboAfrica quote - crocodilesrating with African scientists, many are very enthusiastic but uncertain about how to make it happen.  The broader ambition of this nascent Cambridge in Africa programme is to make Africa accessible to Cambridge researchers, and vice versa, and to be able to able to secure substantial and longer term funding.

Although there is a general lack of well equipped laboratories in many African institutes, there are some very good research facilities. “There are opportunities to do really quite sophisticated work, but you could also do what might be considered to be relatively adventurous things involving sleeping in tents and avoiding crocodiles”, explains David Dunne. “We need more researchers training out there so that local researchers can benefit.” The opportunities are not limited to research: a two week intensive course on various aspects of infection and immunity is taught by local academics and academics from Cambridge and other UK Universities in the Uganda Virus Research Institute to participants from several African countries. Offers to teach are always welcome.

If you are interested in finding out more about Cambridge in Africa and the THRiVE programme, registering as a potential mentor or would like to be put in contact with relevant African research groups, please contact Pauline Essah via email (pae21@cam.ac.uk) or telephone (x33336).

Captions for photographs:

[1] Dr Shona Wilson (Schistosomiasis Research Group, Dept Pathology, Cambridge) processing blood samples with Kenyan and Ugandan colleagues in a rural field lab near Lake Victoria, Uganda.

[2] Exposure to schistosomiasis in Lake Victoria, Uganda

[3] Dr Shona Wilson and Cambridge PhD student, Jennie Houghton, take a break from the lab at the source of the Nile, near Jinga, Lake Victoria

[4]  A Cambridge/Kenya Medicine Research Institute Schistosomiasis Research team in the field.

Anna Davies, September 2011


Dr Amos Mwaka (left - THRiVE PhD fellow) with Professor Nelson Sewankambo (middle - the Director of THRiVE Programme and Principle of the Makerere University College of Health Sciences in Uganda) and Professor Martin Roland, CBE (right - Professor of Health Services Research at the University of Cambridge). Professor Roland, who is the Cambridge Mentor for Dr Mwaka, visited Uganda in July 2011 to meet and have discussions with his Mentee and the PhD supervisors based in Uganda.

Dr Amos Mwaka (left - THRiVE PhD fellow) with Professor Nelson Sewankambo (middle - the Director of THRiVE Programme and Principle of the Makerere University College of Health Sciences in Uganda) and Professor Martin Roland, CBE (right - Professor of Health Services Research at the University of Cambridge). Professor Roland, who is the Cambridge Mentor for Dr Mwaka, visited Uganda in July 2011 to meet and have discussions with his Mentee and the PhD supervisors based in Uganda.

What about THRiVE?