AN award of US$1.1 million, from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Fogarty International Center, for a global infectious diseases research training programme has been made to The University of the West Indies (UWI) and State University of New York (SUNY).
News of the grant was shared at the launch last Friday, at UWI's Regional Headquarters, in Kingston, by officials from both universities who described it as “historic” and introduced the first four of 15 young scientists who will be involved in the programme.
The four scientists are Dr Inshan Ali, a clinical microbiology resident; Chadwic Mears, master's student in medical biology; Dr Michelle Brown, who specialises in epidemiology of viral hepatitis and treatment in Jamaica; and Tiffany Butterfield, a PhD student in co-morbidities in HIV infection.
“We're trying to trace infectious diseases — how they start, how they get transmitted and how we cure them,” SUNY Chairman Carl McCall told the Jamaica Observer after the launch.
“One of the intentions is to find drugs, but as educators the thing that we like is that we're training young scientists, and the first four are from The UWI. Ultimately, we will have 15 young scientists who we will be training to be experts in this field,” McCall said, adding that the majority of the scientists will come from The UWI.
Earlier at the launch, McCall told guests that the programme will enable medical researchers to discover new ways to trace and ameliorate the health outcomes of Caribbean populations.
“Given the significant movement of people between our communities, we know that this endeavour will be significant for the health care sector,” he said.
“We recognise that health concerns and research priorities have far more to do with geography than they do with demography. The population that we serve as SUNY and UWI is often the same and certainly has consistent characteristics in health outcomes. This award will make all of us more informed and will allow us to serve our communities more effectively in a more cohesive manner,” McCall added.
Pointing out that SUNY and The UWI have been working on programmes for many years, McCall said the research project is a demonstration of the value of collaboration.
That point was emphasised by UWI Vice Chancellor Sir Hilary Beckles, who pointed out that both universities, in 2016, established a Centre for Leadership and Sustainable Development, “focusing on all the development concerns of our many societies”.
He praised the project and congratulated Dr Luz Longsworth for her diplomacy and negotiating skills in establishing the centre, which is based at SUNY's Empire State College in New York.
A brief on the project described SUNY as the largest comprehensive system of universities, colleges and community colleges in the USA ,spanning 64 campuses. It also pointed out that The UWI, with four campuses, is ranked number one in the Caribbean by the prestigious Times Higher Education.
The significance of the grant was highlighted by SUNY Distinguished Professor Gene Morse, who said that just about 10 to 15 per cent of applicants to the NIH are successful.
“The Fogarty Center is even more competitive,” he added.
“The first aim is to create a core of young investigators. We don't want to train people who will [only] remain in the building and do research. We want people to come up with new ideas, bring grants here, bring funding so that the capacity building occurs. It is research, but it's really about capacity building and what the future will bring,” Professor Morse explained.
He also said that the development of drugs was one of the programme's focus.
“There are people here studying how to extract natural products. There's no reason those can't be developed and patented and basically build a pharmaceutical industry,” Professor Morse said.
The NIH, which is part of the US Department of Health and Human Services, is the world's largest biomedical research agency.
Information on the NIH website states that it “comprises 27 separate institutes and centres of different biomedical disciplines, and is responsible for many scientific accomplishments including the discovery of fluoride to prevent tooth decay, the use of lithium to manage bipolar disorder, and the creation of vaccines against hepatitis, Haemophilus influenzae, and human papillomavirus”.
The website also states that for more than a century, NIH scientists have paved the way for important discoveries that improve health and save lives.
A total of 153 Nobel Prize winners have received support from NIH.
“Their studies have led to the development of MRI, understanding of how viruses can cause cancer, insights into cholesterol control, and knowledge of how our brain processes visual information, among dozens of other advances,” the site reads.
The Fogarty International Center's website explains that it is dedicated to advancing the mission of the NIH by supporting and facilitating global health research conducted by US and international investigators, building partnerships between health research institutions in the United States and abroad, and training the next generation of scientists to address global health needs.
The global infectious diseases research programme will be led by Professor Morse. Dr Timothy Endy, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at SUNY Upstate Medical University and the Center for Global Health, is the co-principal investigator, while John Lindo, professor of parasite epidemiology at The UWI, is a co-investigator and project leader at The UWI Mona campus.