Month: May 2012

Sub-Saharan Africans join forces for TB vaccine research

[JOHANNESBURG] Researchers in Sub-Saharan Africa are playing a key role in the development of a new tuberculosis (TB) vaccine, following South Africa’s lead, a meeting in Johannesburg heard last week (20 March).

At the meeting, held before World TB Day (24 March), researchers launched a blueprint on TB vaccine research for the next decade, and discussed the role the country and the region will play in TB vaccine research.

South Africa has the second-highest incidence of TB worldwide, which makes it an appropriate place to test new vaccines. There are 1,000 cases per 100,000 people in South Africa, compared with around 200 in India and less than 100 in China, according to David Mametja of the South African Department of Health.

He added that South Africa has the highest number of TB cases per capita in the world.

Each year, there are about nine million new cases of TB and 1.5 million deaths. Most countries where the disease is endemic give children the Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine, but this does not protect adults from pulmonary TB, the most common and infectious form of the disease.

There are 15 vaccines in clinical trials, and many more in preclinical stages of research and development.

Hassan Mahomed, co-director of the South African Tuberculosis Vaccine Initiative (SATVI), said it was “important for Sub-Saharan Africa to take the initiative and develop a vaccine … There are excellent scientists in South Africa who understand the epidemic and can conduct research”.

Gavin Churchyard, chief executive officer of the Aurum Institute, a non-profit research organisation based in South Africa, agreed. “South African researchers are playing a leading role internationally in research and diagnostics,” he said.

South Africa is collaborating with nine other institutions in Africa. For example, SATVI has formed partnerships for clinical trials with research institutions in Kenya, Mozambique and Uganda.

SATVI, according to Mahomed, is leading the way in South Africa.

“We have tested five vaccine candidates and have led eight vaccine trials,” he said, adding that phase 2A clinical trials are currently being conducted on one vaccine candidate — MVA85A — with results expected early next year.

“This is the first time we’ll have efficacy results, to determine if this trial prevents TB. We’ll be making history,” said Mahomed.

Africa-wide monitoring tool aims to boost food security

Bibi-Aisha Wadvalla


28 March 2012 | EN | FR

African scientists
The initiative will give stakeholders access to integrated data from a wide range of information sources


[JOHANNESBURG] An innovative tool for monitoring agricultural production and ecosystem health in Africa could boost food security and decrease environmental degradation across the continent.

The Africa Monitoring System (AMS) tool was launched last month (23 February), and aims to provide real-time integrated data on agriculture, ecosystems services and human well-being, assembled in six indicator categories, whichpolicymakers and organisations can use to better understand trade-offs that result from increased agricultural production.

Ethiopia, Ghana and Tanzania will be the first countries to contribute data to the tool, in the first of three phases targeting five regions in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The US-based non-governmental organisation Conservation International is a co-leader of the project, and Sandy Andelman, CI’s vice president, said data will be collected by automated sensors as well as manual observations and measurements from technicians. Data will also be incorporated from  household surveys using smart phones.

“The data will be summarised into a set of holistic indicators and displayed on [an open access] web-based dashboard. Raw data and analytical outputs will be available through the web as well as various customised reports on particular topics,” she told SciDev.Net.

Policy nodes at national, sub-national and international scales will be established, and regular input from policymakers will be obtained to ensure they understand the service and are receiving relevant information from it.

Andelman, who will serve as AMS executive director, said the tool’s target audience will be policymakers at the international, national and regional level, donors, agricultural extension systems, non-governmental organisations andfarmers‘ associations.

He said farmers would also benefit indirectly through improvements to livelihoods and the maintenance of ecosystems.

Keith Shepherd, chief soil scientist at the World Agroforestry Centre, Kenya, said the system would help generate more evidence-informed decisions.

But he warned that “one of the key challenges will be good planning and coordination across multiple agencies so that everything comes together into a smooth operation”.

“If standardised and systematic processes with good quality control are not put in place, we may just end up with a lot of messy data from different sites that cannot be combined,” he said, adding that data handling, statistical analysis and interpretation, and obtaining sufficient investment were also potential challenges.

AMS is headed up by CI, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in South Africa and the US-based Earth Institute, and has received significant funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Business of stem cell banks questioned

Umbilical cords are in demand for therapies that exploit neonatal stem cells, but some private cell banks are accused of taking advantage of parents.

Bibi-Aisha Wadvalla

Virgin Health Bank

Private stem cell banking is a steadily growing business in the Arab region, with parents increasingly aware of the potentially life-saving benefit of preserving a newborn’s umbilical cord. Cord blood treatment is currently used in therapy for a number of cancers; blood, metabolic and immune disorders. While harvesting and storing blood from the umbilical cord is not a controversial medical practice in the Middle East, there are several ethical issues that need to be considered.

Umbilical cord blood transplantation, even from a mismatched donor, is an effective alternative treatment for a bone marrow transplant if marrow from a matched donor is unavailable. Hind Humaidan, director of the Cord Blood Bank set up in 2003 at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre in Saudi Arabia, says her hospital has performed more than 3,500 bone marrow transplants, but that finding a suitable donor is often a major obstacle.

Since the cord blood bank’s launch, it has collected 3,725 UCB samples. Humaidan says the non-profit public cord bank has benefited patients, and has resulted in huge savings for the hospital. “We used to pay US$30,000 to US$35,000 to import and transplant UCB. The cost to transplant a local unit from our bank is US$7,300.”

The American Academy of Paediatrics, Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the World Marrow Donor Association have all questioned the benefit of private stem cell banking, arguing there is no real advantage in autologous transplantation. The banks have also been criticized for aggressive marketing to expectant parents. “You cannot tell people if you don’t donate your baby’s umbilical cord blood cells (UCB), your child may possibly die. That’s just wrong,” said Rajan Jethwa, head of Virgin Health Bank (VHB) in Qatar, speaking at a panel discussion at the Qatar International Conference on Stem Cell Science and Policy in February 2012

Jethwa argues that the aggressive marketing of some private cell banks is driven by a commercial imperative which can override promoting the medical value of stem-cell preservation. Although VHB, headquartered in the United Kingdom, has existed as a private enterprise since opening in Qatar in 2009, a new public-private model will come into effect this year under which a sample of the child’s cells will be banked privately, and the remainder, with parental permission, will be placed into the public bank. “Thus social enterprises can make a profit and do good,” Jethwa explains. “I like to think we are the architects of Arab stem cell banks.”

The state will pay the bank to operate the public donor bank, which will be fully managed by VHB.

Therapeutic potential

Medical professionals encourage the donation of UCB to public stem cell banks since, like blood banks, they benefit the wider community. Humaidan, suggests banks should accurately explain to parents the terms of donation and how it can benefit others. “Most mothers, if approached correctly, agree to donate cord blood.”

“In Saudi Arabia, large families are common, so there’s a larger donor pool for UCB,” says Humaidan, suggesting this would solve the problem of the lack of matched donors. Since the bank opened in 2003, the hospital has done 219 successful UCB transplants.

Both Humaidan and Jethwa confirm that once parents donate umbilical cords to a public bank by informed consent, they concede control of the tissue. “However, if it’s needed for a transplant and it’s still available, it will be given to the patient,” says Humaidan.

Qatari women scientists aim for the top

Four young female researchers are trailblazing their way to becoming leading stem-cell scientists in Qatar’s thrust to become a top country of research.

Bibi-Aisha Wadvalla

Heba Al-Siddiqi explaining her work to Sir Magdi Yacoub.Nature Middle East

Stem cell research began in Qatar in 2007 when the Qatar Foundation joined forces with the Baker Institute, a policy institute and part of Rice University in Houston, Texas. Their goal is to help develop stem-cell research in the small Gulf country.

One of the first steps taken by the collaborations was to form the International Programme on Stem Cell Science and Policy, charged with examining the ethical and religious issues involved in stem-cell science, relevant to Arab culture, and engaging with local communities. Five years on, the plan is bearing fruit.

Hamda Al-Thawadi, Halema Al-Farsi, Heba Al-Siddiqi and Sarah Abdullah joined the Qatar Science Leadership Program (QSLP), a QF initiative that aims to groom Qataris to take leading roles in Qatari science and one day steer its ambitious national programme of research.

The QSLP sends students to train at some of the best universities in the world. And 2011 saw Al-Thwadi and Al-Farsi go to one of France’s largest universities, University Paris-Sud 11, Al-Siddiqi go to Harvard Stem Cell Institute in Massachusetts and Abdullah go to the University of Cambridge in the UK.

At the Qatar International Conference on Stem Cell Science and Policy held this past week in Doha, Al-Thawadi, Al-Farsi and Al-Siddiqi presented their research on ovarian cancer and obesity-related diseases. Al-Thawadi practiced medicine for two years before applying for the QSLP. “In the past there was only one path for a medical doctor, treating patients. But when QF started this programme, they created a new path for doctors or graduates interested in science,” she says. “This is a perfect chance for Qatar to create home-grown researchers.”

A bioethics class at Cardiff University in the UK got Al-Siddiqi hooked. “There was a lot of controversy over using embryonic cells, so I took a class which made me read more about stem-cell research, and decided to go into it.”

Relevant research


Hamda Al-Thawadi standing next to her poster on ovarian cancer and thrombosis.Nature Middle East

The first research paper Al-Siddiqi’s co-authored was published inNature Cell Biology in February 2012. “It felt amazing, especially after all the hours of hard work,” she says.

Al-Thawadi and Al-Farsi decided to work on ovarian cancer as it is highly prevalent in the Middle East. Al-Thawadi incubated cancer cells in culture with Protein C, a coagulation factor, to test its effect on thrombosis of ovarian cancer cells, which led to a significant increase in metastasis. “This gives us a clue to outline preventative measures for thrombosis in ovarian cancer patients,” she explains.

For the past year, Al-Farsi looked into ways to reprogram certain cancer stem cells. “They contain PD117, a factor found only in stem cells which allows them to regenerate. The same principle can be applied to other cancers.”

Abdullah realised halfway through medical school in Nottingham University in the UK that research interested her more. She returned to Qatar with a neuroscience degree to look for an institution that would fund her to “research stem cell and neurological disorders, which aren’t very common in Qatar at the moment.”

Abdullah’s focus is on the role of the transcription factor oxo-3a in myelin-forming cells called oligodendrocytes. When the factor disappears from cells after trauma or disease it can lead to neurodegeneration. “I hope to promote formation of differentiating cells by studying stem cells and look at why oligodendrocytes fail to remyelinate,” Abdullah elaborates.

None of the budding young researchers feel they’ve faced gender discrimination. “It’s better to be a female,” laughs Al-Siddiqi. “I feel more privileged, and I think I’m treated better and there’s a lot of support.”

Living in Paris, Al-Farsi at first felt a bit out of place, and felt judged wearing a hijab, but has since settled in. “I feel accepted now.”

Abdullah feels she is playing an important role in dispelling misconceptions about Arab women. “As an Arab woman I think people abroad are shocked at how modern and knowledgeable we are. For a long time Muslim women have made a name for themselves, and I’m just joining a group of established women.”


The original article mistakenly stated Heba Al-Siddiqi published her first co-authored paper in Nature. It was published in Nature Cell Biology.

  • References

    1. Ahfeldt, T. et al. Programming human pluripotent stem cells into white and brown adipocytes. Nature Cell Biology 14, 209-219 (2012)doi:10.1038/ncb2411 | Article | PubMed | CAS |

Ancient Egypt in 3D

Bibi-Aisha Wadvalla

The Valley of the Kings; The Karnak Temple Complex and the Temple of Hatshepsut. Just three of the marvellous attractions of Luxor in Egypt, the site of the ancient city of Thebes, which have lured people from afar for millennia. Now, new 3D technology may offer virtual visitors the change to gaze at those ancient wonders without as much as a tourist bus in sight.

Researchers at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) and the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) have used new imaging technology to construct 3D models of these ancient wonders.

Shooting an Egyptian temple with the CAVEcam at nightGreg Wickham

The teams employed CAVEcam photography: two cameras rigged to snap the shutters simultaneously, each taking 72 photographs for panoramic views of 360° vistas. Only three such systems have ever been built, one belongs to its designer, Dick Ainsworth, and the other two are at KAUST and USCD.

“There is no system other than the CAVEcam that can capture 3D images covering the complete sphere — 360 degrees by 180 degrees,” says Ainsworth.

“The CAVEcam has two cameras sitting side by side which replicate both the distance and view of the human eye. So as a result you have a left and right eye perspective of photos taken,” explains Adel Saad, systems administrator at KAUST’s Visualisation Lab. The cameras reposition automatically at regular intervals for subsequent photographs to capture the entire scene, from sky to ground.

Software stitches simpler images together, but more complex scenes need to be stitched manually, taking from 12 hours up to a week. “The stitching process is automatic only in the most trivial sense. It is fairly easy to combine multiple images of a scene to create a single composite photograph. Creating matched stereo images that accurately represent the complete spherical view as seen from each eye, however, is complex. The entire stereo image must be created to accurately duplicate what our eyes see.”

With KAUST boasting one of the most advanced imaging facilities in the world, the next step is to integrate sound and touch into the experience. The team envisions cyberarchaeology, whereby historic sites are preserved and made digitally available in special, 3D visualization facilities, such as those available in KAUST. “I can look at a 3D image of a piece of ceramics and feel the holes and little chips in it, without it actually being there,” explains Saad. He expects such technological developments may be seen in as little as six months to a year.

It can also allow researchers from around the world to study artefacts without worrying about shipping them overseas or accidentally damaging or contaminating them.

Currently, the images and 3D visualization lab are only accessible to KAUST students, faculty and collaborating researchers. Saad hopes the 3D immersive images will be made available to the public in the near future.

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