Strengthening research capacity where it’s needed most

Through the TDR Career Development Fellowship Programme, scientists from disease endemic countries have a unique opportunity to learn both the product development and full registration processes by taking part at every stage, training in the some of the world’s most advanced labs. Three different partnerships are profiled in Viet Nam, Tanzania and Democratic Republic of Congo.

Training put into valuable use

“The things that I learned at GSK I apply every day at AMANET,” says Okech, who works with the latter as a project manager on a multi-center phase IIb trial of the GMZ2 malaria vaccine currently underway in Uganda and three other countries. “I’m also still in touch with my contacts there,” she adds, including her mentor at GSK Dr Opokua Ofori-Anyinam, who has been involved in the programme since its inception and has mentored no fewer than ten Fellows. “She’s like a mother figure to us,” says Okech. “She always lets us know if she hears of something that could help us.”

“You need networks,” says Ofori-Anyinam, Senior Manager of Clinical Development at GSK Biologicals and a native of Ghana. “You may be clever, but if you’re not allowed to see what is beyond your small field, you don’t know what you can do.” With the CDF, she says, the aim is to provide researchers the kind of opportunities they can’t find in academia – “the chance to do things differently, taking into account exposure to different aspects of research, and to help other people do better. That is what I really love about the programme,” she says. “That’s why I’m dedicated to it.”

Thanks in large part to Ofori-Anyinam’s efforts, many institutions have been able to leverage Fellows’ expertise to enhance the capacity of their respective research centres, making them more attractive for clinical development.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded TDR a US$ 2.9 million grant in 2008 to scale up the programme. “There’s a lack of opportunities for African researchers,” says Erin Shutes of the Gates Foundation. “And without opportunities, re-entry after receiving training or a post-doctoral fellowship can be difficult.” The CDF fills that gap, she says. “We’re encouraged by the Fellows and what they’re able to accomplish when they return home, training colleagues and developing programmes within their home institutions.”

Researchers from all regions of low and middle-income countries can now apply, not just from Africa. To support this programme, TDR has engaged more than a dozen new corporate partners.

One of those is the French pharmaceutical firm Sanofi Pasteur. The largest company in the world devoted entirely to human vaccines, Sanofi was an ideal training ground for current fellow Dr Quoc Dat Vu, the programme’s first trainee from Southeast Asia.

“I’ve been very lucky to work with not only a good mentor but also a good friend, someone who genuinely cares about my career. ”

Dr Quoc Dat Vu
First CDF Fellow from Southeast Asia

A staff doctor at the National Hospital for Tropical Diseases in Hanoi, Dat, 27, had never before been outside the country. But just a week after arriving in Lyon, France, he was already at work on the planning and implementation of phase II and III trials of the company’s candidate dengue vaccine, currently the world’s most advanced dengue vaccine.

For Dat, the opportunity to be involved in research relevant to his home institution made the CDF, he says, an invaluable experience. “I am a physician in a developing country with a very high burden of dengue,” he says. “So what is the best way to help us? It should be, I think, a vaccine.” Moreover, he adds, by training in a place as rich in expertise as Sanofi Pasteur, “I learned a lot not only about the design and conduct of a clinical trial but also about the other endemic diseases.”

After spending the first six months of the programme with the clinical development team at the R&D center in Lyon, Dat moved on to Sanofi Pasteur in Singapore for a more field-based perspective. “We wanted Dat to see the life cycle of clinical trials. To see the planning and project management, as well as the importance of clear processes and Good Clinical Practice in Lyon before moving to Singapore to see the implementation and conduct of trials,” says Dr Derek Wallace, Director of Clinical Development at Sanofi Pasteur (France) and Dat’s mentor for the fellowship. “Our aim is to contribute to a network of physicians who understand the complex requirements of multinational research.”

Dat returns to Viet Nam this spring with a wealth of new knowledge and relationships with which to help his home institution undertake research on endemic infectious diseases. But he also takes with him the personal relationships that, like Okech, he values every bit as much as the expertise. “I’ve been very lucky to work with not only a good mentor,” he says of Dr Wallace, a veteran in the field of vaccine development, “but also a good friend – someone who genuinely cares about my career.”