Fred Hutch and Aga Khan University set stage for collaboration on global health

Prince Rahim Aga Khan and his wife, Princess Salwa, tour labs
Prince and princess at Riddell lab
Princess Salwa Aga Khan and her husband, Prince Rahim, discuss research at the laboratory of Dr. Stanley Riddell during their tour of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center on Tuesday formally announced a goal to collaborate on global health programs with Aga Khan University, which operates medical schools and hospitals throughout the developing world.

Dr. Gary Gilliland, president and director of Fred Hutch, and Firoz Rasul, president of Aga Khan University, signed a memorandum of understanding on March 5 outlining their intentions to develop a five-year relationship to advance cancer research and training and help build an improved medical infrastructure.

As outlined in the memorandum, the Hutch’s Global Oncology Program would work with Aga Khan University on the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer and related diseases, with a focus on Africa, where the Hutch has research laboratories in Kampala, Uganda, and Cape Town, South Africa.

“The vision we share is to see how we can improve outcomes for cancer globally,” said Gilliland at the Hutch campus, as he welcomed dignitaries including Prince Rahim Aga Khan and his wife, Princess Salwa.

“We must work together to enable this vision, as the global impact of cancer continues to increase. That is the extraordinary value of our collaboration with Aga Khan University. Together we can make an enormous difference in the burgeoning global cancer problem,” Gilliland said.

Prince Rahim is the eldest son of His Highness the Aga Khan, the 49th hereditary leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, a culturally diverse community of 15 million living in 25 countries. The Aga Khan is founder of the Aga Khan Development Network, which is known for establishing universities, schools, hospitals, housing and economic development programs in resource-poor regions.

Founded by its namesake, The Aga Khan University is a private, nonprofit organization that operates schools in six countries — Afghanistan, Kenya, Pakistan, Tanzania, Uganda and the United Kingdom. It supports medical centers that annually treat more than 2 million people.

“Hope,” said Gilliland, “is something that motivates us every day at the Hutch. We must assure that patients have hope, and that they have access.” He praised Aga Khan University for its “deep, extensive experience” in ensuring access to care in the countries where it provides health services.

Aga Khan University President Rasul has run the multinational institution since 2006. He said that both the university and Fred Hutch shared something rare in global health: “We are institution-builders.”

Drs. Gilliland and Rasul sign memo of understanding
Dr. Firoz Rasul, left, president of Aga Khan University, and Dr. Gary Gilliland, president and director of Fred Hutch, sign a memoradum of understanding to collaborate on prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer and related diseases. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

'Moments in the life of an institution when all the stars align'

In Kampala, his organization is building a new Aga Khan University Hospital on 60 acres granted to it by the Ugandan government. Rasul said the university has been devoted to diversity and helping the disadvantaged. Half of its graduates were the first in their family to attend a university. Two-thirds of today’s students are women, as are more than half of its medical students.

He said partnerships like this one with Fred Hutch were needed, because cancer kills more people in the developing world than HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined. “There are moments in the life of an institution when all the stars align, everything slides into place, and you feel certain you are on the right path. This is one of those moments,” he said.

Prior to the signing ceremony, Prince Rahim and Princess Salwa took a tour of the Hutch laboratory of Dr. Stanley Riddell, scientific director of the Hutch’s Immunotherapy Integrated Research Center. No stranger to the Pacific Northwest, Princess Salwa is a Seattle native and a graduate of the University of Washington.

Transforming our understanding of cancers in Africa

The couple also visited the lab of Dr. Hootie Warren, head of the Hutch’s Global Oncology Program. There, Dr. Manoj Menon described several research initiatives underway in Uganda, including a clinical study for breast cancer.

One study is testing the feasibility of a three-drug chemotherapy regimen that patients will be able to take orally — a more practical formulation than intravenous infusions that are difficult to manage in resource-poor settings. The program is also evaluating the use of PCR, a diagnostic tool readily available in Africa for the management of HIV, to determine whether molecules on the surface of the breast cancer tumors were susceptible to certain drugs — information regularly used to determine treatment options in the U.S.

Warren told the gathering that the African population of 1.4 billion is expected to rise to 4.2 billion by the end of this century. He suggested that advanced technologies, such as single-cell analysis of tumor samples — a cutting-edge technique now used in the United States — could help transform our understanding of cancers in Africa. He also praised the emerging capability of the UCI-Fred Hutch Cancer Centre, the Kampala laboratory jointly operated by the Hutch and the Uganda Cancer Institute — to sequence the entire genomes of tumor samples using recently installed instruments.

“From our footprint in Kampala, and hopefully along with Aga Khan University, we will generate advances that can change lives and cure cancers for millions of people,” Warren said.

Read more about Fred Hutch achievements and accolades.

Sabin Russell is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. For two decades he covered medical science, global health and health care economics for the San Francisco Chronicle, and he wrote extensively about infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS. He was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT and a freelance writer for the New York Times and Health Affairs. 

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