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Aid for Africa: MedUni Vienna opens research centre at Jimma University in Ethiopia

Vienna (6th September 2011) The Medical University of Vienna is providing equipment and expertise to a research centre at the Jimma University Eye Clinic in Ethiopia. The process will take to the end of October. This cooperation is a product of the Laura Bassi Project OCUVAC, led by Talin Barisani. The project aims to develop a vaccine against the eye disease trachoma, a condition from which thousands of people suffer in Africa and which can lead to blindness.

"Help that allows people to help themselves", says Talin Barisani, explaining the intention behind the research centre, which aims to offer improved treatment and diagnosis: "The first step is to differentiate an infection that leads to trachoma from other infections through good diagnosis." Jimma, with 37,000 students, is Ethiopia's second-largest university.

Jimma is located in a region with high numbers of cases of trachoma. Trachoma is an infectious, inflammatory eye condition that can lead to blindness. In Ethiopia, a country with around 88 million inhabitants, about ten million people suffer from this condition, some 24.5 per cent of all cases occur in the Jimma region. The causes include, among others, poor hygiene conditions, drought and poverty. "Of course, it is not easy to explain to people who don't have any water that it's important to use water to wash their children's faces", says the scientist. 

"One well costs seven oxen"
In many villages, there are no wells whatsoever, and consequently no water. Women have to walk for miles and miles on foot to find the nearest source of water. Says Barisani: "One well costs around seven oxen. For individuals, that's way too much. But people do not think that perhaps it would be feasible, if everyone gave one ox, since the concept of shared responsibility is not anchored in traditional society. With our international partners and NGOs, we are attempting to encourage people to take small steps and make lasting changes."

In the research centre, sustainability is a major goal. The MedUni Vienna is supporting and looking to help establish research activities in the department, so that the best employees can be retained and they are given the opportunity to carry out scientific work and have their work published. "The main risk is that the best scientists and clinicians will be lured away to Europe."

On the way to a pioneering vaccine
The collaboration with Jimma is the product of a scientific project by the Laura Bassi Programme (OCUVAC) at the MedUni Vienna and the business partner BIRD-C, a biotechnology firm that specialises in the development of vaccines from bacterial cell envelopes. The MedUni Vienna project is sponsored by the Austrian Ministry of Economics through the FFG. OCUVAC has already been up and running for a year and by the time it finishes in 2017, a revolutionary success is expected to have been made: a vaccine against trachoma that can be administered without needles, manufactured cheaply and requires no cold chain.

OCUVAC leader Barisani: "The idea is that we use so-called bacterial ghosts - empty bacterial cell envelopes that are not alive but whose membrane structures are still intact." Bacterial ghosts are ideal for anchoring specific antigens to various pathogens in the envelopes. This makes these modified bacterial ghosts into vaccine candidates who, due to their origin, their ideal size and shape and intact surface structure, can be detected and absorbed by the cells of the body and the immune system.