Building Biomedical Research Capacity Requires Mentoring the Next Generation of Leaders and Scientists

Gene Morse with Chiedza Maponga and University of Zimbabwe graduates, 2011.

Gene Morse with Chiedza Maponga and University of Zimbabwe graduates, 2011

By Jessica Scates

Published August 16, 2018

1981 marked the beginning of the HIV epidemic. Between 1982-1988 AIDS became prominent in the United States and Europe, but the world lacked therapeutic drugs that could suppress the virus. 

“The tremendous effort required to build capacity for biomedical research in low- and middle-income countries is optimized through parallel effort to mentor the next generation of leaders and scientists.”
Gene Morse, SUNY Distinguished Professor
School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences

During this pivotal time in the history of HIV/AIDS drug development, Dr. Gene Morse was completing his Doctor of Pharmacy training followed by a fellowship at the University at Buffalo. As clinical care and research efforts were forming to treat HIV+ patients with the limited medications available, Dr. Morse joined other health professionals to begin a multidisciplinary program at the Erie County Medical Center leading to the regional AIDS center designation from the Department of Health.

In response to the epidemic, in 1986 the National Institutes of Health (NIH) created the Division of AIDS within the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The Division of AIDS then announced plans to seek academic health centers from around the country to initiate clinical research through a network that would become the AIDS Clinical Trial Group (ACTG). Dr. Morse collaborated with a team of virologists and infectious disease researchers from the University at Rochester to compete for an ACTG Clinical Trials Unit with a designated HIV Pharmacology Specialty laboratory directed by Dr. Morse at the University at Buffalo. Dr. Morse worked the with the NIH, academic medical centers and pharmaceutical companies to study new therapeutic drugs. Dr. Morse notes that it was disappointing in the beginning – patients were taking 20-30 tablets or capsules per day and realizing only a few months of benefit. The successful combination of multiple antiviral drugs, now known as combination antiretroviral therapy, was not developed until 1996 but these combination regimens were accompanied by complex drug interactions that required intensive research to optimize their use in patients.

In 1998, Charles Chiedza Maponga, a former UB PharmD student returned from his home country of Zimbabwe to complete a fellowship with Dr. Morse’s lab and participate in ACTG research. At the time, AIDS was spreading across Zimbabwe and Africa. Although treatment of AIDS was complicated in the United States, the complexity of treatment in Zimbabwe was far greater due to concurrent infections with tuberculosis, malaria and viral hepatitis and limited healthcare resources. Collaboration with Dr. Maponga, and Dr. Morse’s ACTG network experience within NIH, led to a 2006 Fogarty International Center award to build the capacity of young research scientists in Zimbabwe. For more than 10 years now, PharmD, Masters, PhD students and medical graduates from Zimbabwe and the United States have received mentoring and training from researchers at the University at Buffalo and University of Zimbabwe through the UB-UZ HIV Research Training Program (HRTP). The effects are far reaching. Last year, Dr. Admire Dube, a post-doctoral fellow of the HRTP program with joint mentorship from UB’s Institute for Laser, Photonics and Biophotonics, received a prestigious 5-year award from the Fogarty International Center as an Emerging Global Health Leader with funding to develop nanomedicine formulations for tuberculosis treatment at the University of Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa. Dr. Maponga has gone on to be an African leader in the field of HIV and is now technical advisor to the Minister of Health and Child Care and the Minister of Higher and Tertiary Education, and Technology Development in Zimbabwe.

36.9 million people in the world have HIV/AIDS. Many do not have access, or are unable to take antiretroviral medications, and others must battle a multitude of factors such as tuberculosis, malaria, and malnutrition. Treating HIV/AIDS is much more complicated than just providing a patient with drugs. To address these complications, Dr. Morse recently began working with social norm and behavior change researchers to incorporate interventions that focus on stigma, prevention, and mental health. Building on the existing HRTP award, additional work will combine HIV, Oncology, and Behavioral Health research.

Dr. Morse’s collaborations in Zimbabwe have also led to the development of the UB Center for Integrated Global Biomedical Sciences (CIGBS). CIGBS currently leads a project, in collaboration with Professor Maponga and the government of Zimbabwe, to develop what is the equivalent of a Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus in Harare, their capital. The hope is that Zimbabwe will become an innovation hub for health system development and biomedical research throughout southern Africa.

Additionally, Dr. Morse, co-chairs a Health Research Task Force with Professor John Lindo of  the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus. The task force is a component of the SUNY-UWI Center for Leadership and Sustainable Development, that is led by CIGBS and the SUNY Global Health Institute. DR. Morse is the PI for a recent award to UB, UWI and Upstate  Medical University for a Global Infectious Diseases Research Training Program from the NIH Fogarty International Center for virology research capacity building in Jamaica that focuses on training Jamaican researchers and investigating emerging diseases prevalent in the area like Zika, Dengue, and Chikungunya, along with chronic infections that include HIV, HPV and viral hepatitis.

Dr. Morse’s career has focused largely on innovative drug and novel health system development, however throughout all his work he places a clear emphasis on mentoring the next generation of scientists and leaders. He notes “The tremendous effort required to build capacity for biomedical research in low- and middle-income countries is optimized through parallel effort to mentor the next generation of leaders and scientists.”