African scientist wins award for HIV and TB co-infection research

28 October 2009

A scientist who is helping to treat thousands of people living with HIV and tuberculosis (TB) in South Africa was awarded the Royal Society Pfizer Award at a ceremony last night (27 October).  Dr Linda-Gail Bekker's research looks at how TB epidemiology has changed in the HIV era.  Researchers estimate that more than one in ten of all South Africans over 2 years old were living with HIV in 2008. South Africa has also seen a six fold increase in tuberculosis rates in the last 20 years.

The Royal Society Pfizer Award includes a £60,000 award grant which aims to encourage medical research in Africa by supporting young scientists. Pfizer, the world's leading research-based pharmaceutical company has been supporting the awards for the last four years and has so far granted £240,000 core funding for research work in Africa.

Dr Bekker is deputy director of the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre at the Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine, University of Cape Town and chief operating officer of the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation. Her doctoral work focused on the host response to TB both with and in the absence of HIV co-infection. Subsequently her research interests have expanded to include programmatic and action research around antiretroviral roll out, TB integration and prevention of HIV.

The funding provided by this award will help with research being carried out at Nyanga Primary Health Clinic in Cape Town. Bekker's team will collect positive tuberculosis cultures obtained from sputum samples in the clinic with the specific aim of describing the diversity of TB strains among HIV-positive individuals receiving Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Treatment (HAART), HIV- positive individuals not receiving HAART and HIV negative individuals. They will also explore healthcare-associated transmission of tuberculosis in the clinic and test drug sensitivities of all cultures. It is hoped the research will have lessons for how TB/HIV and ART services are designed and run in southern Africa as well as giving further information on host susceptibility and organism virulence.

Dr Bekker said of her award:

"In 2005, the World Health Organization declared a regional emergency and called for extraordinary measures to be implemented to curb the unprecedented increase in HIV/TB currently occurring in South and southern Africa. I am so honoured to be a recipient of the Royal Society Pfizer Award this year- it will help me and the great team I work with to do our part in investigating urgently what those extraordinary measures should be. More than ever before this public health crisis requires innovative thought and research to find novel answers and effective strategies to turn these numbers around."

Professor Ralph Kirsch, a colleague of Dr Bekker's at the University of Cape Town, said:

"Linda Gail marries science and humanity in her approach to patients with HIVAIDS. She is constantly looking at how to provide better care and how to make compliance easier. Her relationship with her patients and with those recruited into her various studies is an important role model to us all."

Professor Lorna Casselton, Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society, said:

"The Royal Society Pfizer Award recognises the valuable research already taking place in Africa, whilst aiming to expand research capacity.  We hope that this award will continue to boost the careers of its winners and the individuals working around them. This year's winner, Dr Linda-Gail Bekker, has done outstanding research into tuberculosis and HIV co-infections in Africa. Her contribution to several innovative and successful health delivery platforms and capacity building opportunities has been invaluable. We congratulate her and hope that this funding will help her continue her research to its full potential."

Dr Freda Lewis-Hall, Chief Medical Officer of Pfizer Inc, said:

"Defeating infectious disease means making advances in both prevention and treatment. Pfizer is proud to be a partner with the Royal Society in creating this award, which recognizes essential and inspiring medical and public health research from a new generation of African scientists. Support like this translates into new knowledge, lives extended and saved, and less human pain and suffering."

The award grant and a £5,000 personal prize were presented to Dr Bekker at a ceremony at the Royal Society in London last night.