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He is at the helm of the AIDS Vaccine research

By Vision Reporter

Added 21st January 2002 03:00 AM

Dr. Pontiano Kaleebu was awarded the prize for young scientist of the year, 1999

Dr. Pontiano Kaleebu was awarded the prize for young scientist of the year, 1999

By Joan Mugenzi AS Uganda prepares for the HIV vaccine trial that is likely to begin in June 2001, Dr. Pontiano Kaleebu is the main scientist to commend. He is the principal investigator (PI) of the DNA-MVA that is to be tested in Uganda in conjunction with the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI). As the PI, Kaleebu is the focal point for the development of protocol. He is supposed to see that the vaccine trial is done in the proper scientific and ethical manner. He has to see that the necessary infrastructure is set up and that there are trained personnel to do the job. “The first trial will take us two years and if the vaccine appears successful, we hope to go into phase II in 2004,” says Kaleebu, who was also one of the main scientists in the Alvac, the first vaccine to be tried in Uganda in February 1999. Vaccine preparations at the Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI) have been going on since 1990 through training of personnel and setting up the laboratories with international collaborators. A lot of research work generated from this institute and published various in international scientific journals is also being used to develop vaccines. Kaleebu says the DNA-MVA vaccine is the same vaccine that is being tested in Kenya and the UK but “we are just changing the doses and it will be given in combination.” Preparations for this vaccine have been going on for the past three years. “We have found that the major HIV subtypes in our country are A and D. This is a vaccine based on subtype A,” says Kaleebu, whose professional life has been dominated by HIV/AIDS works. A year after he completed his studies at Makerere University Medical School in 1986, Kaleebu concentrated on nothing but HIV/AIDS. It was only in 1987 that he did clinical work at Nsambya Hospital. Kaleebu joined UVRI in 1988, a time when the institute was beginning to prepare itself for HIV research. “I think that was the time when AIDS became a major issue and I saw opportunities,” he states in a matter-of-fact manner. He got funding from the Overseas Development Administration (now DFID) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) to study immunology and virology in the UK. He graduated with a Ph.d after five years. “My major work was describing the different HIV subtypes and immune responses that may be relevant for vaccine development,” he says. “Since my return, I have worked with the Medical Research Council (MRC) programme on AIDS in establishing and conducting research in Virology and Immunology to answer questions such as: ‘why do some people progress faster than others using the cohorts set up by MRC in Masaka’,” says Kaleebu, who also heads the Basic Sciences of the MRC programme. “I think it is exciting to see that the preparations we have had for many years are leading us into a vaccine trial of this nature,” he says, as he eagerly waits for the approval of the DNA-MVA vaccine trial. “I can see it as another way that Uganda is still at the fore front in the fight against HIV/AIDS. We have done well in different areas of prevention. It is exciting to see that Uganda and Ugandan scientists are playing a leading role in HIV vaccine related work,” he adds. “The other thing that I am very happy about is that more and more scientists are being trained – we are developing capacity in different areas,” he says. He observes that many people look at developing a vaccine as a simple thing. “They think that you are somewhere mixing some substances and from a laboratory, you look at people to inject, which is not the case,” he says. “They forget the complication of trying to understand that there is a lot that we don’t know on how an HIV vaccine operates that needs to be understood in the laboratory before human trials,” states Kaleebu. Because of the nature of his work, Kaleebu is in office at 8.30am and in most cases, does not leave until 9.30pm. He works over the weekend as well. “I am a workaholic – I enjoy my job. It is exciting. I have had a good working relationship with my colleagues,” says Kaleebu, also the head of UVRI immunology department. The busiest moment during the different stages of planning vaccine trial was when they were preparing to launch the project. “We had to go through all the legal technicalities like Solicitor General’s office and Ministry of Health formalities. But the more challenging activities are yet to come,” relates Kaleebu. Right now, Kaleebu is working on getting volunteers. “We hope to go to communities around Entebbe and Kampala. We shall look for adults between 18 and 55 years. These are real volunteers who are coming in without coercion but accepting to participate after getting all the necessary information,” states Kaleebu. “Our biggest challenge is to educate the communities and population to understand the need for such trials,” he adds. Volunteers will get three shots of the vaccine. They will first get the DNA and two subsequent shots of MVA at five and seven months. Kaleebu’s interest in research started off as a child while at Jinja Kaloli Primary School, Kawempe, St. Mary’s College, Kisubi, Makerere University Medical School and the University of London. As a child his aspirations kept on changing but a big part of his life knew that he wanted to be a doctor although even as he ventured into medicine, he never thought of getting into research. “I wanted to become a paeditrician but it was after my internship that I knew I wanted to move away from routine clinical work,” he says. In 1999, Kaleebu received the prize for young scientist for 1999. The prize was jointly awarded by the Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) and the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNSCT). In all his work, Kaleebu’s family has been very supportive. “My family has been appreciative of my busy schedule. They have realised how my busy schedule leaves me little time to be with them. My wife has been supportive. I have been with her from the time I was training in the UK. But I try to find some time for the family whenever I can. The fortunate thing is that I work near my home. When I am tired I can go back and play with my four children,” says the busy scientist. This man, who has also been actively involved in the WHO/UNAIDS network for HIV isolation and characterisation, says the frustrating thing about his work is the lack of an answer about the vaccine. “People hear you are working on a vaccine and when they ask you as to when they would get a successful vaccine, you have no answer. That way, you somehow feel bad. You are working on something day and night but saying you don’t know,” he says, the frustration apparent on his face and in his voice. “We also need to go to phase three and by the time you finish, it is like ten years. So, you ask yourselves, is this vaccine worth pursuing?” he says. Does that mean that he finds his career frustrating at times? “I have not been disappointed. I am proud of my achievements. The sad thing is that we are doing all this research but up to now we are still telling people we have no cure or vaccine for AIDS. That is the most frustrating thing,” concludes Kaleebu.

He is at the helm of the AIDS Vaccine research

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