Heading to Southern Africa

United Nations center makes room for cancer and infectious disease researchers from Brazil

TORRE DE TOMBO National Archive/A DESCOBERTA DO HOMEM E DO MUNDOOutline of the Earth, Atlas, unknown author, circa 1560TORRE DE TOMBO National Archive/A DESCOBERTA DO HOMEM E DO MUNDO

After entering the history of science and technology with the first heart transplant in 1967, and as the homeland of three Nobel Prize laureates, South Africa is gaining ground. The newest unit at an institute maintained by the United Nations Organization (UN), ICGEG (the International Center of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology), which went into operation in 2008 in Cape Town, the country’s legislative capital, was further strengthened in March by three more research groups, one of which is coordinated by a Brazilian bio-medicine specialist, Luiz Zerbini.

After working for nine years at Harvard University, one of the world’s richest and most productive, Zerbini moved to South Africa in late February with his family, desirous of strengthening the scientific collaboration between researchers from Brazil and from other countries in the fields of cancer and other diseases of neglected populations, such as AIDS, TB and malaria, which are ICGEB’s priorities. The Cape Town unit has a budget of some € 3 million (approximately R$ 15 million) for the next four years, funded in equal parts by the governments of South Africa and  Italy, and by international science funding agencies.

“Brazil is an ICBEG member, but we don’t resort to it much”, comments Zerbini. Brazil is one of the 59 countries that form ICGEG, created by the UN in 1987. From 1988 until last year, ICGEB received 212 Brazilians in the labs at the headquarters  in Trieste (Italy) or in its two other units, one in New Delhi (India) and the newest, opened in 2007, in Cape Town; Cuba and Argentina were the South American countries that sent the largest number of scientist there. “I’m now selecting grant fellows and setting up my team. I hope to get more projects from Brazilians for evaluation”, he says, while warning that he will have to pay the same degree of attention to candidates from other countries to form his team of six to ten researchers. Besides doctoral and post-doctoral grants, ICGEG offers financing of as much as € 25 thousand (R$ 125 thousand) for promising research projects from the member countries, capable of achieving results in three years at most.

ICGEB is not merely an arena for basic research targeting the needs of underdeveloped countries or regions, though the center’s priorities in India are TB, viral diseases and the molecular biology of plants, while the new South African unit is to focus on infectious diseases such as malaria, AIDS and cancer. “There is also commitment to generate products and technology transfers”, states Zerbini, who did his doctorate at USP from 1995 to 1999 thanks to a FAPESP grant. In 2008, the Gates Foundation announced that it would donate US$ 3 million to finance research and develop educational courses and campaigns to improve public health in Africa at the institute’s African unit. Genzyme, an American biotechnology firm, also announced an agreement, the value of which was not revealed, to speed up research of a malaria vaccine at the ICGEG labs in India.

Zerbini plans to expand to South Africa his search for relevant genes, which he started in the United States. In 2004, after teaching at Harvard for one year, he discovered that a family of genes, the GADD45, formerly linked only to the control of the cell cycles, could also, subject to unusual activation, induce programmed cellular death and inhibit the formation of tumors. Published in 2004 in PNAS, this study raised the possibility of new drugs and inspired other teams to look for details about the action mechanism of these genes. Meanwhile, he spent three years working with Towia Libermann, a Harvard University associate professor, to build two proteome and genome centers, those of the Dana Farber Harvard Cancer Center (DFHCC) and of the Harvard Medical School. Headed by Libermann and Zerbini, the centers also enabled the identification of the molecules that interact with GADD45 to induce cell death or the arresting of the cell cycle.

One the genome center’s studies, which, like the proteome center, served the entire scientific community at Harvard, compared the activity of 4 thousand genes in 3 groups of people: 19 individuals who had been engaging in meditation daily for a long time, 20 who had been engaging in meditation for 2 months, and 20 who formed the control group. Published in 2008 in PLoS ONE, this study showed that relaxation, as indicated by lowered stress and oxygen consumption, had changed the activity of 2,209 genes in the group of meditation “veterans” as compared to the control group; 1,562 genes, mainly those that avoided the formation of chemical residues, were activated in the body of those who engaged in meditation.

“I’m going to move little by little”, comments Zerbini. His research, which previously dealt with the expression of the genes GADD45 in cancer of the prostate, kidneys and ovaries, more common in the United States, will now turn to cancer of the liver, breast and esophagus, the most common ones in Africa. At least to begin with, he knows productivity will slow down and that the chemical reagents probably will not arrive on the same day, as they did at Harvard. At the new center, which will operate within the University of Cape Town until its own facilities are ready, everything will be under construction: three teams (cancer molecular and cellular biology; cytokines and diseases; and biotechnology development and transfer) went into action last year and another two (cancer genomics, with Zerbini; and cellular immunology, with Jeffrey Dorfman, an American scientist) will start their work this year.

Besides the professional challenge of setting up a lab and of organizing work teams, and the opportunity to offer new life experiences to his wife, Maria Beatriz and his children, Luiz Otávio, aged 5, and Maria Stella, aged 2, he confesses to one more reason for signing up for the job in April of last year: “Cape Town is a very pleasant city, with white, sandy beaches and mountains, not unlike Rio de Janeiro”, says this scientist born in São Paulo 41 years ago. “And the 2010 Soccer World Cup will be held here!”