Thu, 2011-06-30

K-RITH Recruits South Africa-born TB Microbiologist

Adrie J.C. Steyn, a tuberculosis (TB) microbiologist, has been named as the first full investigator at the KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute for Tuberculosis and HIV (K-RITH), a new TB and HIV research center at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa.  

Born and raised in Cape Town, Steyn began work at K-RITH in June, and he will quickly start up his research lab and begin to identify research staff, including postdocs and graduate students. “It’s really wonderful to return to South Africa because I was born, raised and educated there,” he says.

Steyn moved to the United States in 1994 to finish his Ph.D. and stayed, eventually becoming an associate professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). “I became a citizen and I never thought I’d go back.” That changed when K-RITH director William R. Bishai called him last year to tell him about the new institute.  Steyn calls the chance to work at K-RITH a “miraculous opportunity” to return to the country of his birth and study the two diseases that have been a major problem there.

The Institute, which is a collaboration between the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, aims to conduct outstanding basic science research on TB and HIV, translate the scientific findings into new tools to control the deadly diseases, and expand the educational opportunities in the region. A new K-RITH building is currently under construction on the campus of the UKZN’s Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine in Durban.

Bishai is especially delighted that his first hire at K-RITH is South African. “The most remarkable part of the story is, now he’s going to be the reverse of brain drain,” Bishai says. “He’s taking the marvelous skills he has gained and moving back to his home country of South Africa.”

Steyn, who will retain his faculty position at UAB, studies how  Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bug that causes tuberculosis, keeps itself alive in its host’s cells. Most people infected with TB don’t develop symptoms, a condition known as latent tuberculosis. In most people, latent tuberculosis never turns into active disease, and Steyn is interested in how the bacteria fend off attacks by the host’s immune system, particularly how the bacteria keeps from being destroyed.
 
At UAB, Steyn works with animal models of tuberculosis, mostly mice but also guinea pigs. In South Africa, where TB is common, he hopes his basic research findings will be translated into discoveries that could help people with TB.  South Africa has one of the highest rates of TB per capita in the world. In KwaZulu-Natal, the province where K-RITH is located, 295 out of 100,000 people have active tuberculosis. “I think there are enormous and obvious advantages in building a top-notch research institution right in the middle of it,” he says.
 
Steyn is particularly interested in applying his work in latent TB to patients infected with both HIV and TB. Latent TB is more likely to turn into active infection in people with weakened immune systems, like those with HIV. He also wants to work on new ways to diagnosis TB because the current detection methods take too long, and it’s particularly difficult to diagnose tuberculosis in people with HIV. One way he might do that is to measure chemicals exhaled in breath to see whether those might be able to quickly diagnose a patient, a method that has been effective for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cystic fibrosis. In addition, he plans to follow-up on research into cigarette smoke, which raises the risk of TB infection.

Steyn is just the first of 6 to 9 investigators that will be hired to work in K-RITH’s new building, a seven story, 4,000 sq. m.(40,000 sq. ft.) facility that will include biosafety level 3 spaces, which allow scientists to safely handle dangerous pathogens like TB. A groundbreaking ceremony and symposium to explore the challenges and opportunities in TB and HIV research will be held July 12-15, 2011, in Durban.

Bishai hopes to have two to four more scientists on board when the building opens in 2012. One of these is a newly-created position supported through a collaboration with the Max Plank Society.

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Contact Indu Moodley, 031-260-7212 (office), 083-555-9508 (mobile), or moodleyi@ukzn.ac.za or Andrea Widener, 301-215-8807 or widenera@hhmi.org.

The KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute for Tuberculosis and HIV (K-RITH) is an independent research institute dedicated to conducting outstanding basic science research on tuberculosis (TB) and HIV, translating the scientific findings into new tools to control the diseases, and expanding the educational opportunities for scientists in Africa. Located in Durban, South Africa, the Institute was founded in 2009 as a collaboration of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.