Working hand in hand with Africa

Checking for mosquito larvae in a village in Senegal.Two Israeli scientists from Ben Gurion University of the Negev are out to change the way the scientific Western World deals with Africa.One of the biggest hurdles Africa faces is overcoming the …

Checking for mosquito larvae in a village in Senegal.Two Israeli scientists from Ben Gurion University of the Negev are out to change the way the scientific Western World deals with Africa.

One of the biggest hurdles Africa faces is overcoming the numerous infectious diseases it contends with, note BGU colleagues Dr. Leslie Lobel, 52, of the Department of Virology, and Professor Robert Marks, 47, of the Department of Biotechnology engineering.

Until now most diagnostic kits, vaccines and drugs used to test for and counter viral diseases have been for the most part purchased and sent to African countries from Western countries. But in most cases they are too expensive for the budgets of African countries and so only a limited number of people are diagnosed. Some vaccines against viral disease do not include the local African strains and treatments are either too costly or not formulated to function under African reality which includes lack of available refrigeration and clean water.

In addition, the emphasis has been on diseases of concern and interest to the Western world such as the HIV virus and malaria – which do not necessarily correlate with the diseases which the Africans themselves are most concerned about, according to American-Israeli Lobel who immigrated six years ago, giving up a position at the Columbia University School of Medicine to set up his own lab in the virology department at BGU.

In general Africans take a pragmatic approach to infectious diseases and are more worried about disease which affect their livestock and limit their food production and more directly affect the vitality and productivity of their citizens, he tells ISRAEL21c.

The problem is rooted in a colonial mentality which sees the issues of Africa through the eyes of the developed world. In part that happens, says Lobel, because very few westerners actually spend time in Africa and even less ask Africans what they themselves need and want.

A world-class consortium

By working hand-in-hand with African scientists, Lobel and Marks hope to create a world-class consortium based in Africa, which will transfer existing technology and develop new technologies for treatment and diagnosis of infectious diseases prioritized by the African scientists themselves.

The new BGU initiative – the Bio-Africa Research Network (BARN) – was launched at the ViralCheck workshop and hands-on conference held in Dakar, Senegal in June. It is meant to turn the traditional pattern 180 degrees around and get the African scientists themselves involved in determining what are the medical and scientific needs for each community.

With world-renowned virologist Dr. Robert Webster of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital of Memphis, Tenn., in attendance, the conference was an auspicious start for the network.

A book which will be published by BARN following the conference will detail all aspects of viral diseases. Contributors include scientists from the US, Europe, Israel and Africa thereby providing a global perspective on various aspects of viral disease and diagnostics.

“This allows me to do amazing science while at the same time doing something great for humanity. This is the most important thing in my life right now. It is very exciting,” says Lobel.

BARN is to include a core nucleus in both English and French speaking African countries including Senegal, Uganda, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Kenya and South Africa who will work together, facilitated by the network, to do research and exchange information between the research teams. So far teams in Senegal, Ethiopia, Uganda and South Africa area actively involved in research for BARN, with scientists from the other countries due to join this year.

“There are a lot of smart African scientists who much of the rest of the world don’t appreciate,” says Lobel. They intend to seek these people out to become part of their network, he added. “We want to select people who are ready to accomplish things and want to work under this philosophy. We are not planning to simply send money to Africa. We want to send people and technical know-how to help the Africans help themselves.”

Already, notes Marks, an Israeli-American raised in France who immigrated to Israel in 1995, they have met a number of impressive scientists from Ghana at the Dakar conference and are hoping to recruit them for the BARN network in Ghana.

Under the BARN initiative there will be one lab in each country that will include personnel from governmental institutions, universities, research institutions and hospitals. Research will focus on detection of viruses, treatment and the reduction of bio-environmental threats.

In addition to building on the good relations Israel has with Muslim Senegal and other African countries, as dual American citizens he and Marks are also able to build some good will for the United States in Africa, says Lobel, and the US State Department provided partial funding for the conference in Dakar with this in mind.

”Israelis understand the African mentality”

He adds that while working in Africa he has had to put aside his American way of thinking and rely more on his newly acquired Israeli mentality.

“Israelis do well in Africa. They know how to help Africans help themselves. Americans and Europeans don’t understand the African mentality,” he explains.

Seed money for the project has been raised through a private American foundation and will allow Lobel, Marks and their students to travel to Africa on a rotating basis to work with scientists there, as well as bring over African scientists for training at BGU labs. Funding will also enable African BARN scientists to visit each others’ labs for collaboration and sharing of research data for joint multi-national research projects.

“It won’t be easy, but we have enough experience on the ground which enables us to make the least number of mistakes,” says Lobel.

The main goals of the initiative are threefold: to develop new technologies for diagnostics of infectious diseases in keeping with the African reality, developing African intellectual property, and setting up start-ups.

“The problem is they get everything from the US and Europe. Africans can make their own vaccines (which would be less expensive and more suited to African viral strains), but nobody is helping them do that because the companies want to sell them their vaccines,” says Lobel. “We want to change the whole philosophy.”

The challenge, say the Israelis, is not just setting up the network but establishing it in such a way that it is sustainable in the long term, creates jobs, and succeeds in showing Africans how to help themselves.

“The whole idea is not just to publish, which obviously Leslie and I need to do, but to help African scientists write patents and apply for grant money,” says Marks. Once scientists begin receiving their own grant money they will eventually be able to be weaned from BARN resources, he explains.

It is hoped the network will provide jobs in BARN laboratories in each country, as well as in the start-up companies which will be established to produce various diagnostic kits, drugs and vaccines resulting from the research.

Lobel and Marks hope to be able to raise money for the first five year phase of the initiative by which time they will be able to set up start-up companies.

“After they complete their scientific studies African students don’t really get (scientific) jobs. There is no chance to benefit from their education. The moment we create the first corporation people will understand the benefit of such a network,” Marks said.

The initiative will be deemed a success, adds Marks, when those who initiated it can leave the network in the capable hands of a strong team of African scientists who keep the project moving forward.