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Kaleebu came home to find cure for AIDS

By Vision Reporter

Added 29th November 2009 03:00 AM

DR. Fred Lyagoba, a senior scientific officer at the Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI) in Entebbe recalls how his group struggled to make their places clean after using monkeys and other animals in their research work. The monkeys could attack the me

DR. Fred Lyagoba, a senior scientific officer at the Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI) in Entebbe recalls how his group struggled to make their places clean after using monkeys and other animals in their research work. The monkeys could attack the me

By Gladys Kalibbala

FACT FILE
Name: Pontiano Kaleebu
Age: 49
Schools attended: Jinja Kaloli Primary School, St Mary’s College Kisubi, Kampala High and Makerere University

DR. Fred Lyagoba, a senior scientific officer at the Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI) in Entebbe recalls how his group struggled to make their places clean after using monkeys and other animals in their research work. The monkeys could attack the men who fed and kept them.

MRC is part of .
Lyagoba says in the 1980s they were dealing with attempted virus isolations using one-day-old suckling mice. Dr Pontiano Kaleebu then trained him the group in the techniques of isolating viruses using modern technology like tissue culture and DNA/RNA isolation.

The group’s work was made easier by Kaleebu’s training and advice.
“Science has advanced. Instead of getting 20ml of blood samples for a tissue culturing to see a virus in between 14-28 days, I will only need 2ml with results in just a week. We need to have more Kaleebus in this country,” Lyagoba explains.

Dr. Kaleebu, who has trained many other researchers, says it was towards the end of his training as a medical doctor at Makerere Medical School in 1986 when he first experienced the torture of HIV/AIDS among the patients at the wards.

During his internship at Nsambya Hospital in 1987, the wards were always full of HIV/AIDS patients. Dr. Merriam Duggan, the medical superintendent at that time, started a special clinic for these patients.

Whenever he was at the Ward, he always got closer to the patients as he prescribed medicine while asking many questions about how they felt.

He confesses that he realised AIDS was not far from him since he saw people he knew of his age coming to the wards coughing terribly and having many disorders.

Kaleebu then made his decision to go in for a full time research career in order to get to the root of this disease, which was getting more complicated everyday.

That is when he saw an opportunity to do a lot of research at UVRI to contribute in getting a cure or a vaccine.
When he discussed the idea with his mother, she was not happy with him leaving hospital for a research institution, where he would not see patients more often and nobody would ever recognise his work.

Indeed many doctors were opting to remain in the wards and the idea of a career in research was not popular among the young doctors.

Luckily, Kaleebu had already made up his mind as he was not satisfied with the methods of only caring for the sick when the epidemic was increasing.
In late 1987, Kaleebu was asked by then director of UVRI, the late Dr. Sylvester Sempala, to be recruited into UVRI.

One year after joining UVRI, he was given a scholarship to study immunology at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School, Hammersmith Hospital in London.

The study exposed him to the basic concepts of immunology and vaccinology and also initiated his contact with experts in HIV research.

After completing his masters, the university offered him a scholarship for a PhD. He says his stay at the University of London for the PhD benefited him when he worked under a good researcher in HIV/AIDS, Prof. Jonathan Weber, at St Mary’s Hospital, London.

Kaleebu was able to characterise viruses and immune responses from Ugandan patients living in London and those in Uganda.

He was also exposed to many other international experts participating in the WHO/HIV virus Isolation and
characterisation Network.

Unlike other colleagues, who opted to remain in Europe and USA, he saw more opportunities in Uganda.

In 1995, Kaleebu was appointed head of the immunology department and he joined MRC/UVRI research programme in 1996. He says the funding from the UK to UVRI gave them a lot of opportunities.

“With other colleagues, I concentrated on the work of developing basic research in immunology and virology,” he explains.

Kaleebu says their collaboration with the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative has also been important in their efforts to find a vaccine.

Five years ago, he was chosen to chair the steering committee of this programme with its headquarters in Geneva.

The programme has contributed to capacity building, advocacy and has been able to address issues around ethics and research regulation in Africa.

Kaleebu says the programme is soon moving from WHO to become an autonomous organisation based in one of the African countries, where Uganda, Botswana and South Africa have been short listed among the many that bidded.

“Am hopeful that Uganda will be selected to host this programme because of the work we have done and the commitment shown by the Government,”.

He says if Uganda is chosen, there will be opportunities for more networking in Africa and chances of more funding which will enable more research and train more scientists for the future.

Kaleebu reveals that they met a lot of opposition as they prepared to start the first HIV/AIDS vaccine trial in 1999.

“Many people claimed we wanted to use Ugandans like Guinea pigs! We sensitised the masses through the media and after numerous workshops, we ended up with the Cabinet and Parliament for approval.

UVRI has played a big role in building the local capacity to conduct HIV vaccine research, development and other HIV prevention research and care. All the research is done locally in the laboratories.

In December, Uganda will host the 5th AAVP Forum, where the first ladies of Uganda and Rwanda among other dignitaries and stakeholders will attend.

ACHIEVEMENTS
Dr. Kaleebu heads the MRC Basic Science Programme at UVRI and is the acting director of UVRI.

Contributed to HIV-vaccine research and the training of young scientists in the country.

Kaleebu leads a Network of Excellence funded by European Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP) involving 27 institutions in East Africa.

He is part of the group that started a Programme called African Aids Vaccine Programme (AAVP) in 2001.

Initiated the HIV-drug resistance prevention, surveillance and monitoring programme.

Chairs the National HIV-drug resistance working group within the Ministry of Health.

Kaleebu came home to find cure for AIDS

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