Efforts over the past few years to end the COVID-19 pandemic clearly reveal how global health impacts individual wellbeing and national security. At NIH, the Fogarty International Center helps the other institutes become engaged with global health research, which investigates the dual burden of infectious disease and non-communicable disease.
Global health research also encompasses data science, economics, genetics, climate change science, and many other disciplines. For more than 50 years, Fogarty has been building partnerships among institutions in the U.S. and abroad, while training the next generation of scientists focused on universal health needs.
America’s investment in Fogarty has paid rich dividends
During the pandemic, in particular, we’ve seen researchers trained by our programs make scientific discoveries that contributed to international security. Take Jessica Manning, a former Fogarty fellow who now conducts malaria research in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Her team at the Ministry of Health sequenced the viral strain of SARS-CoV-2, the cause of COVID-19, infecting the first Cambodian patient and documented early the spread of this novel coronavirus outside of China.
Similarly, Christian Happi, director of the African Centre of Excellence for the Genomics of Infectious Disease, Ede, Nigeria, sequenced the first SARS-CoV-2 genome in Africa. Happi was able to do it by adapting the sequencing and analytical pipelines that he’d created back when he was a Fogarty grantee studying Ebola.
In Botswana, Sikhulile Moyo leveraged the skills he’d acquired while supported by a Fogarty HIV research training grant with Max Essex, Harvard School of Public Health, Cambridge, MA, to track COVID-19 mutations for his country’s Ministry of Health. Last November, he alerted the world of a new Omicron variant. Within six weeks, Omicron became the dominant global strain, challenging the ability of COVID vaccines to control its spread. In the Dominican Republic, William Duke, a national commission member, used what he’d learned as a Fogarty trainee to help create a national COVID-19 intervention plan to prevent and control the disease.
Fogarty’s fostering of global health leaders is one way we advance scientific expertise while ensuring our nation’s biosecurity. Another is by finding effective ways to study abroad the same health conditions that affect our own population.
Research conducted in Colombia, for example, may provide clues for preventing Alzheimer’s disease in the U.S. Fogarty support brought together neuroscientists Kenneth Kosik, University of California, Santa Barbara, and Francisco Lopera, University of Antioquia, Colombia, to study members of the largest-known family with an early-onset, rapidly progressive form of the disease. Over the years, Kosik and Lopera have trained local scientists, explored gene therapy targets, investigated biomarkers to monitor disease progression, and conducted drug trials in search of a cure for Alzheimer’s.
Researchers in other fields also discover unique opportunities to investigate populations with high rates of disease. Siana Nkya, a Fogarty grantee based in Tanzania, has devoted her career to studying the genetic determinants of sickle cell disease, which affects many people around the world, including in the U.S. We hope that US-African partnerships might develop improved, affordable treatments and a cure for all patients with this devastating disease. Similarly, people in the U.S. have access to state-of-the-art HIV treatment studies in places around the globe where incidence rates are higher.
Fogarty has supported many milestone achievements in HIV research over the years. Among them is a study that took place in nine countries. The research, led by Myron Cohen of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, established that antiretroviral therapy can prevent sexual transmission of HIV-1 among couples in which one person is infected and the other is not. In fact, this research informs current HIV treatment recommendations worldwide, including in the U.S.
Americans will also undoubtedly benefit from projects funded by Fogarty’s Global Brain and Nervous System Disorders Research across the Lifespan program. For example, psychologist Tatiana Balachova, University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma City, has designed an intervention for women in Russia to prevent fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. In another project in South Africa, Sandra and Joseph Jacobson, Wayne State University, Detroit, conducted the first-ever prospective longitudinal study of the syndrome. Findings from both projects are ripe for translation within an American context.
Other examples of Global Brain program investigations with broad implications in our own country include studying early psychosis in China; capacity building for schizophrenia research in Macedonia; exploring family consequences from the Zika virus in Brazil; and studying dementia and related health and social challenges in Lebanon.
These are just a few examples of Fogarty’s work and its unique mission. What is most remarkable about Fogarty is that just under 90 percent of our grants are co-funded by at least one other NIH institute, center, or office. Collaboration, both within borders and across them, is Fogarty’s formula for success.
Note: Dr. Lawrence Tabak, who performs the duties of the NIH Director, has asked the heads of NIH’s Institutes and Centers (ICs) to contribute occasional guest posts to the blog to highlight some of the interesting science that they support and conduct. This is the 22nd in the series of NIH IC guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.
As a child born and raised in a low-income, urban neighborhood of Jersey City, NJ, Ijeoma Opara counted herself lucky. She had strong support from her parents, both college-educated Nigerian immigrants. But she also saw firsthand the devastating effects that gang violence, crime, drugs, and alcohol were having on too many young people in her community. When she was in high school, her family bought their first house about 20 miles away in the middle-class, suburban neighborhood of Roselle, NJ. The dramatic differences between these two worlds drove home for her how significant a zip code can be in determining a child’s outlook and opportunities.
Today, inspired by this childhood moment of truth, Opara, an assistant professor of social work at The State University Stony Brook University, NY, is the recipient of an NIH Director’s Early Independence Award, tackling the complex relationships between neighborhoods, substance use, and mental health among urban youth. She’s focusing her efforts on Paterson, NJ, a city of about 150,000 people where the rates of substance abuse are among the highest in the country. She hopes to develop community engagement models that will work not only in Paterson, but in struggling urban communities across the United States.
Opara first explored the streets of Paterson, which is located about 20 miles west of New York City, and ultimately fell in love with the place as a PhD fellow studying substance abuse and mental health services. She got to know the youth of Paterson and heard from them directly about what their community was lacking to help them build a brighter future.
She also fell in love with community-based participatory research (CBPR). In this approach, researchers immerse themselves in a community and work as partners with community members, leaders, and organizations to understand the issues that matter, gather essential information and data, and translate them into efforts needed for a community and its youth to thrive.
When Opara decided to apply for the high-risk, high-reward Early Independence Award, she knew her proposal must be innovative and creative. Ultimately, though, Opara realized she needed to propose an idea about which she was passionate.
Opara remembered her love for Paterson and decided to go back there, focusing her attention on filling the many gaps in that community to prevent substance abuse among young people. True to her CBPR approach to research, she also spent weeks meeting with the people of Paterson to ensure that her work would address the community’s most-critical needs and strongest desires from day one.
Opara’s first aim is to look at neighborhoods across the city of Paterson and their relationship to substance abuse and mental health symptoms, including anxiety and depression among its youth. Her work will factor in access to safe housing, healthy food, parks, and playgrounds.
She’ll also recruit young people, including those who are most at risk, to get their take on their community including the prevalence of drug use. Opara won’t just be checking with kids at school. She’ll also spend lots of time with them on basketball courts, in grocery store parking lots, or wherever they like to congregate. What she learns will help her craft evidence-based and community-driven substance abuse interventions for young people at risk. She’ll then work with her partners in the community to help put the interventions to the test.
She recognizes that many consider urban youth too hard to reach. In her view, that’s simply not true. It’s her job to meet these young people where they hang out, learn to engage them, and listen to their needs.
In Paterson, she wants to build vibrant neighborhood models that will enrich the community and help more of its children get ahead. Most of all, she wants to change the way substance abuse and mental health work is done in urban communities like Paterson, and see to it that more resources for youth are put into place.
Opara hopes one day to inhabit a world where urban kids have access to the emotional and mental health resources that they need to cope with the many challenges that confront them. She also wants to inhabit a world where young girls growing up in the inner-city, as she did not so long ago, will be nurtured to move upward and onward as leaders. Her efforts and the strength of her example are certainly a push in the right direction.
Ijeoma Opara (The State University Stony Brook University, NY)
When I volunteered to serve as a physician at a hospital in rural Nigeria more than 25 years ago, I expected to treat a lot of folks with infectious diseases, such as malaria and tuberculosis. And that certainly happened. What I didn’t expect was how many people needed care for type 2 diabetes (T2D) and the health problems it causes. Surprisingly, these individuals were generally not overweight, and the course of their illness seemed different than in the West.
The experience inspired me to join with other colleagues at Howard University, Washington, DC, to help found the Africa America Diabetes Mellitus (AADM) study. It aims to uncover genomic risk factors for T2D in Africa and, using that information, improve understanding of the condition around the world.
So, I’m pleased to report that, using genomic data from more than 5,000 volunteers, our AADM team recently discovered a new gene, called ZRANB3, that harbors a variant associated with T2D in sub-Saharan Africa . Using sophisticated laboratory models, the team showed that a malfunctioning ZRANB3 gene impairs insulin production to control glucose levels in the bloodstream.
Since my first trip to Nigeria, the number of people with T2D has continued to rise. It’s now estimated that about 8 to 10 percent of Nigerians have some form of diabetes . In Africa, diabetes affects more than 7 percent of the population, more than twice the incidence in 1980 .
The causes of T2D involve a complex interplay of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors. I was particularly interested in finding out whether the genetic factors for T2D might be different in sub-Saharan Africa than in the West. But at the time, there was a dearth of genomic information about T2D in Africa, the cradle of humanity. To understand complex diseases like T2D fully, we need all peoples and continents represented in the research.
To begin to fill this research gap, the AADM team got underway and hasn’t looked back. In the latest study, led by Charles Rotimi at NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute, in partnership with multiple African diabetes experts, the AADM team enlisted 5,231 volunteers from Nigeria, Ghana, and Kenya. About half of the study’s participants had T2D and half did not.
As reported in Nature Communications, their genome-wide search for T2D gene variants turned up three interesting finds. Two were in genes previously linked to T2D risk in other human populations. The third involved a gene that codes for ZRANB3, an enzyme associated with DNA replication and repair that had never been reported in association with T2D.
To understand how ZRANB3 might influence a person’s risk for developing T2D, the researchers turned to zebrafish (Danio rerio), an excellent vertebrate model for its rapid development. The researchers found that the ZRANB3 gene is active in insulin-producing beta cells of the pancreas. That was important to know because people with T2D frequently have reduced numbers of beta cells, which compromises their ability to produce enough insulin.
The team next used CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing tools either to “knock out” or reduce the expression of ZRANB3 in young zebrafish. In both cases, it led to increased loss of beta cells.
Additional study in the beta cells of mice provided more details. While normal beta cells released insulin in response to high levels of glucose, those with suppressed ZRANB3 activity couldn’t. Together, the findings show that ZRANB3 is important for beta cells to survive and function normally. It stands to reason, then, that people with a lower functioning variant of ZRANB3 would be more susceptible to T2D.
In many cases, T2D can be managed with some combination of diet, exercise, and oral medications. But some people require insulin to manage the disease. The new findings suggest, particularly for people of African ancestry, that the variant of the ZRANB3 gene that one inherits might help to explain those differences. People carrying particular variants of this gene also may benefit from beginning insulin treatment earlier, before their beta cells have been depleted.
So why wasn’t ZRANB3 discovered in the many studies on T2D carried out in the United States, Europe, and Asia? It turns out that the variant that predisposes Africans to this disease is extremely rare in these other populations. Only by studying Africans could this insight be uncovered.
More than 20 years ago, I helped to start the AADM project to learn more about the genetic factors driving T2D in sub-Saharan Africa. Other dedicated AADM leaders have continued to build the research project, taking advantage of new technologies as they came along. It’s profoundly gratifying that this project has uncovered such an impressive new lead, revealing important aspects of human biology that otherwise would have been missed. The AADM team continues to enroll volunteers, and the coming years should bring even more discoveries about the genetic factors that contribute to T2D.
Caption: Colorized scanning electron micrograph of a blood cell infected with malaria parasites (blue with dots) surrounded by uninfected cells (red). Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH
As a volunteer physician in a small hospital in Nigeria 30 years ago, I was bitten by lots of mosquitoes and soon came down with headache, chills, fever, and muscle aches. It was malaria. Fortunately, the drug available to me then was effective, but I was pretty sick for a few days. Since that time, malarial drug resistance has become steadily more widespread. In fact, the treatment that cured me would be of little use today. Combination drug therapies including artemisinin have been introduced to take the place of the older drugs , but experts are concerned the mosquito-borne parasites that cause malaria are showing signs of drug resistance again.
So, researchers have been searching the genome of Plasmodium falciparum, the most-lethal species of the malaria parasite, for potentially better targets for drug or vaccine development. You wouldn’t think such work would be too tough because the genome of P. falciparum was sequenced more than 15 years ago . Yet it’s proven to be a major challenge because the genetic blueprint of this protozoan parasite has an unusual bias towards two nucleotides (adenine and thymine), which makes it difficult to use standard research tools to study the functions of its genes.
Now, using a creative new spin on an old technique, an NIH-funded research team has solved this difficult problem and, for the first time, completely characterized the genes in the P. falciparum genome . Their work identified 2,680 genes essential to P. falciparum’s growth and survival in red blood cells, where it does the most damage in humans. This gene list will serve as an important guide in the years ahead as researchers seek to identify the equivalent of a malarial Achilles heel, and use that to develop new and better ways to fight this deadly tropical disease.
Caption: Colorized scanning electron micrograph of filamentous Ebola virus particles (blue) budding from a chronically infected VERO E6 cell (yellow-green). Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH
Long before the current outbreak of Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) began in West Africa, NIH-funded scientists had begun collaborating with labs in Sierra Leone and Nigeria to analyze the genomes and develop diagnostic tests for the virus that caused Lassa fever, a deadly hemorrhagic disease related to EVD. But when the outbreak struck in February 2014, an international team led by NIH Director’s New Innovator Awardee Pardis Sabeti quickly switched gears to focus on Ebola.
In a study just out in the journal Science , this fast-acting team reported that it has sequenced the complete genetic blueprints, or genomes, of 99 Ebola virus samples obtained from 78 patients in Sierra Leone. This new genomic data has revealed clues about the origin and evolution of the Ebola virus, as well as provided insights that may aid in the development of better diagnostics and inform efforts to devise effective therapies and vaccines.