Dreamers and searchers
In a place like Soweto, South Africa, where one in three pregnant women lives with HIV, a person needs a different kind of conviction to dare to dream about ending the epidemic. In the context of a difficult search that has been ongoing worldwide for at least 30 years, it takes an unusual team of local doctors, nurses, pharmacists, counsellors, data staff, quality controllers, administrators and communities to continue searching for solutions, one study volunteer at a time.
The word “unwavering” probably best describes the team of dreamers and seekers that have found themselves patiently and passionately conducting HIV vaccine trials at the Vaccines Research Centre in Soweto. The Soweto Clinical Research Site (CRS) has conducted vaccine trials for over a decade now, and has been pivotal to South African HIV vaccine development history.
Professor Glenda Gray spearheaded the efforts to begin randomized controlled HIV vaccine trials, and the site was the first in South Africa to begin an HIV vaccine trial. Beginning with HVTN 040 in 2003, Professor Gray and her team tested the first vaccine developed for HIV subtype C, which is the subtype circulating in sub-Saharan Africa. Over the years, Professor Gray, the HVTN Co-PI and Director of Africa Programmes, has led South African scientists in the pursuit of subtype C vaccines that have since been tested in trials such as HVTN 073 and HVTN 086. An involved advocate for HIV vaccine licensure efforts, Professor Gray works closely with Kate Hopkins, the Soweto-based Programme Manager for HVTN Site Expansion, to plan the site capacity needed for all of the planned trials in the region.
Dr. Fatima Laher was appointed as leader of the CRS in 2011, aided at the helm by Dr. Erica Lazarus. Both medical doctor-researchers with backgrounds in HIV treatment research, they are focused on the challenge of developing their team for the next stage of dreaming and seeking, as Soweto prepares to play a key role in future large HIV prevention efficacy trials. By the end of 2013, their team had successfully completed enrolment into HVTN 097, the first trial done in South Africa using the “Thai Trial” vaccine regimen, which is the only one to date that has shown partial efficacy.
Besides their work on HIV vaccines, the team also works on a range of research interests that reflect their pledge to seek preventive solutions for diseases that affect the developing world. Working across pediatric, adolescent, adult and geriatric age groups, the team also conducts clinical research on vaccine candidates for Human Papillomavirus (HPV), tuberculosis (TB) and influenza.
The site’s work is strongly rooted in the desire to improve health for their community, who actively support them. The Soweto Community Advisory Board (CAB) for Prevention Research dedicates an afternoon every month to come to the site for meetings chaired by the CAB Liaison Manager (CLM) Nomampondo Barnabas. As key opinion leaders, the CAB members volunteer to educate their communities about vaccines at events like the annual Soweto Vaccine Awareness Day and World AIDS Day. To help keep the community informed, the CLM hosts bi-annual CAB conferences to facilitate knowledge sharing amongst researchers and local CABs. The Soweto community, too, dream of the day when there will be zero new infections.
The Soweto CRS is based at the Perinatal HIV Research Unit (PHRU), a renowned research organisation in South Africa committed to its motto, “Improving life through research”. The PHRU is affiliated with the University of the Witwatersrand and is based at one of the world’s largest hospitals, the Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital.