A lifesaving Kenya connection

Overbaugh team reaches beyond borders to support HIV/AIDS research in Nairobi by training local leaders, establishing molecular virology lab
Dr. Julie Overbaugh, Dr. Steve Froggett, Dara Lehman, Bhavna Chohan, and Sandy Emery
Team members in Dr. Julie Overbaugh's Human Biology Division lab, from left, Dr. Steve Froggett, graduate students Dara Lehman and Bhavna Chohan, and research technician Sandy Emery work to enable the conduct of more HIV/AIDS research "in Kenya by Kenyans." Photo by Stephanie Cartier

Kenya is far from Seattle, but close to the Hutchinson Center, where Dr. Julie Overbaugh of the Human Biology Division has been collaborating on HIV/AIDS research with colleagues from the University of Nairobi since 1992.

This year, the collaboration will reach a milestone when a new molecular virology lab opens at the university, providing Kenya with an important resource in its struggle to control HIV/AIDS. "It's been a slow process and it's involved many, many people, but we're finally getting there," said Overbaugh, who led the effort to establish the lab.

More than 1 million Kenyans are living with HIV/AIDS, which makes the East African country an important global battleground against the disease. Modest as it may be, the 300-square-foot lab represents significant progress toward enabling the conduct of more HIV/AIDS research "in Kenya by Kenyans," Overbaugh said.

Besides supporting research — mother-to-child transmission of the disease will be a major focus — the lab will provide speedier diagnosis for Kenyans participating in studies involving Overbaugh and others, including colleagues at the University of Washington. Previously, all blood and tissue samples came to the United States for analysis, resulting in a six-month turnaround time. Now, staff in the new lab in Nairobi will be able to analyze more of the samples, slashing shipment delays and expediting any necessary treatment.

"We'll still do the newer, higher-end assays here until we know they work well, but the more established assays we'll try to do on site," Overbaugh said.

From a pure research perspective, staff in the United States could continue to perform all of the assays. However, now that there is better access to equipment and reagents in-country, more and more countries are questioning the need to send samples to labs beyond their borders. Establishing labs in countries such as Kenya provides opportunities for training as well as opportunities for more leadership and research input by local scientists.

One of the barriers to establishing labs in developing countries is the lack of people trained to run them. It's a Catch-22, though, as foreign students who come to the United States to complete their educations are sometimes reluctant to return home because their native countries lack the resources to support their research, Overbaugh said.

Scientific exchange

A key to establishing the new lab in Kenya was the desire of a Kenyan doctoral student to develop a molecular virology program in Nairobi. Bhavna Chohan joined Overbaugh's lab in 2001 when she began her doctoral studies at the University of Washington as part of the International AIDS Research and Training Program. After graduating this spring, Chohan will return to Kenya with a doctorate in pathobiology and will continue her research in the new lab, with the goal of winning a research appointment at the University of Nairobi.

"It has been very frustrating to see that there has been a lot of brain drain in African countries, mainly due to lack of resources and opportunities for upcoming scientists," Chohan said. "I set out to do graduate studies with the goal of going back and doing scientific research independently in my country and teaching my juniors. Thanks to my training in Julie's lab and my sponsors for giving me the opportunity to study here in the United States, I have finally managed to reach my goal."

Chohan is just one member of the team formed by Overbaugh to establish the facility in Kenya. Major players include Sandy Emery, Dara Lehman and Steve Froggett — all of whom have made at least one trip to Nairobi.

Emery, a research technologist in Overbaugh's lab, helped secure and ship equipment for the lab. She also spent much of the last year helping to perfect an assay for diagnosing infant HIV-1 infection using just a drop of blood collected on a filter paper. Emery is now in Nairobi, teaching her method to the lab staff.

Future grow requires funding

Frogett, a neurophysiologist, managed the construction of the lab and got the equipment up and running. He also helped make key contacts at the University of Nairobi and get the necessary agreements in place. "I had previously set up a medical school in Nepal," he said. "I was in the Seattle area looking for work. Julie heard about me and, based on my experience in Nepal, offered me a contract. The thing that really grabbed me was that a lot of the research will involve children born to mothers with HIV/AIDS."

Lehman, a graduate student in Overbaugh's lab, is conducting a study on drug resistance in some HIV-positive infants to an anti-HIV drug. She will be in Nairobi this winter to teach the lab staff members how to use a DNA sequencer donated by Applied Biosystems. The staff will use this technology to sequence HIV variants in infants exposed to antiretrovirals used as prophylaxis during birth and postpartum. Her study will examine whether the presence of resistance mutations predict the success of future treatment options for these infants.

Overbaugh looks forward to maintaining the Center's Kenyan connection; a second doctoral student from that country will join her lab next year. She's also eager to see the new lab grow.

"It will be even more exciting when we have an entire building, or at least the floor of a building, dedicated to HIV/AIDS research in Kenya, but that will take major funding. So this is, at least, a first step," Overbaugh said. "And each step is heading in the right direction."

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