New basic knowledge

Sixteenth Programme Report

Introduction

The TDR activities which generate new knowledge (area B of the TDR strategy) are diverse. They include research in biological disciplines such as genomics, proteomics, immunology, pathogenesis and molecular entomology on the one hand, and social science disciplines such as economics, health policy research, sociology, and anthropology on the other.

Bioinformatics or computational biology is needed to help us understand how information contained in the genome is transformed into biological reality. A multi-disciplinary international network for bioinformatics applied to pathogen genome research was created during the biennium, through which TDR is strengthening institutions and training researchers from disease endemic countries (DECs), helping them to participate in this important area of modern biological research.

In 2001, a two-pronged approach was developed by TDR to facilitate training and application of bioinformatics and genomics in DECs. For the first step, an international training-of-trainers workshop on bioinformatics applied to genome studies, held at Fundation Oswaldo Cruz (FIOCRUZ) research institute in Brazil, was supported. The objective was to develop the network and, in addition, prepare the participants to facilitate similar teaching courses in their regions, promoting South-South and South-North interactions in bioinformatics.

TDR also awarded support to four institutions in DECs selected from 18 responses to a call for applications for regional training centres in bioinformatics. The four centres – South African National Bioinformatics Institute (SANBI), South Africa; University of Sao Paulo (USP), Brazil; Mahidol University, Thailand; International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB), India – have taken on the responsibilities of organizing annual training workshops for young investigators from Africa, Latin America and Asia respectively. The centres are also developing and facilitating regional networks for applications of bioinformatics and applied genomics to tropical diseases.

The availability of genome sequences for a number of the TDR pathogens has generated a large amount of information available on public domain databases, providing an unprecedented opportunity to use whole genome-based methodologies, computational biology and functional genomics to identify new drug targets and diagnostic reagents. For this, TDR established a Working Group on Applied Genomics for Drugs and Diagnostics under its Pathogenesis and Applied Genomics Committee.

Research on entomology continues with the focus on developing a mosquito incapable of transmitting malaria or dengue. The need for a careful approach to future studies involving potential modified vectors is emphasized, and the aim is to organize a scientific group to facilitate discussions between all parties interested and involved in transgenesis and its potential applications, ethics, and related policy issues.

Since social, political and economic inequalities are central to the persistence and spread of the TDR diseases, and the performance of health systems in protecting vulnerable populations from the impact of these diseases often falls far short of potential, TDR emphasizes the importance of the basic social sciences for identifying opportunities to improve the prevention and control of diseases of poverty.

The aim is to contribute to a better understanding of the implications of globalization and changing social, political and civil structures for health equity and the persistence, emergence and resurgence of TDR diseases, reflecting growing interest in the complex relationship between poverty and health.

The TDR target diseases form a spectrum stretching from those which are neglected and lack adequate tools for their control to those where tools have been available for many years and the scene is set to reach elimination of the disease as a threat to public health. Depending on the category, the approaches applied are naturally very different and so are the outcomes.

While we are still groping in the dark to find targets for vaccines, diagnostics and drugs regarding some of the infections under study, the control of others has become more a question of guiding scientists towards the social, economic and behavioural aspects. Research support has been widely dispersed over the ten diseases and various topics, and this overview of activities of the last biennium concentrates on topics where most progress has been made.

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TDR-supported regional training centres in bioinformatics: