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Delegation heads to Harvard

5 May 2017

Some of Sydney's leading academics are taking part in a delegation to Harvard University this month, exploring potential links between the two universities.

Professor in Paediatrics and Infectious Diseases and Deputy Director of the Marie Bashir Institute for Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity Ben Marais (above) is a leading campaigner in the fight against childhood tuberculosis.

Among them is Ben Marais, Professor in Paediatrics and Infectious Diseases and Deputy Director of the Marie Bashir Institute for Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity. Professor Marais is a leading campaigner in the fight against childhood tuberculosis, whose work has helped to raise global awareness of the problem.

TB is the biggest infectious disease killer on the planet, causing an estimated 1.8 million deaths in 2015, but its impact on young children is often overlooked. The World Health Organization estimates that 10 per cent of all new cases involve children, and young children are particularly vulnerable to developing severe forms of TB.  

Professor Marais’ research has helped to highlight the TB disease burden suffered by children, highlighting the lack of care in places where it is often most needed.

With Mercedes Becerra, Professor of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard, Professor Marais has helped to quantify the TB disease burden suffered by children around the world, including estimates of TB-related mortality.

He wrote the first “survival guide” for paediatricians caring for children with drug-resistant TB, in conjunction with colleagues from South Africa. This provided the basis for subsequent USAID sponsored field guides, developed in partnership with the Sentinel Project on Paediatric Drug Resistant Tuberculosis at Harvard. Joint work continues to explore optimal management strategies for children with drug-resistant TB.

He has also helped to raise awareness of the spread of multidrug-resistant TB (MDR-TB), its impact on children and the likely emergence of new drug-resistant strains. In the former Soviet Union up to half of all new cases involve MDR-TB, with limited treatment options and poor outcomes.

After moving to Australia from South Africa in 2011, Professor Marais helped to set up the NHMRC Centre for Research Excellence in Tuberculosis Control with Professors Warwick Britton and Guy Marks. He also helped to establish the NSW Pathogen Genomics Centre at Westmead, chairs the NSW TB Advisory Committee and is the paediatric representative on the National TB Advisory Committee.

He is an expert advisor to the World Health Organization and has evaluated TB control programs in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, Mozambique, Myanmar, the Solomon Islands, Vietnam and Papua New Guinea. He drafted the WHO report in 2014 that led to the declaration of a drug-resistant TB emergency response in PNG. His recent work has focussed specifically on the epidemic spread of drug resistant TB in the Asia-Pacific region.  

Within the Marie Bashir Institute he champions a wide range of multi-disciplinary initiatives relating to infectious diseases. Key focus areas include pathogen discovery and emerging infectious diseases, antimicrobial resistance, healthy food systems, zoonoses, mass gathering medicine and Planetary Health. Sydney recently appointed Tony Capon as the world’s first Professor in Planetary Health and is building strong links with the Planetary Health Alliance at Harvard.

At Harvard, Professor Marais will be meeting representatives from Harvard Medical School, the School of Public Health, the Planetary Health Alliance and the Broad Institute, including Professor Pardis Sabeti in the Center for Systems Biology and Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology who has worked closely with Professor Eddie Holmes from Sydney on the evolution of the recent Ebola and Zika virus outbreaks. 

Professor Kathy Belov, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Global Engagement), will be leading the three-day visit from 8-10 May.

Professor Belov, who visited Harvard in February, said: “This is an exciting opportunity for us to engage with some of the world’s very best researchers and discuss how we might work together. It’s also a chance for us to highlight that Sydney has world-class expertise in medicine, nanoscience, planetary heath, area studies and other disciplines. We believe strongly in the value of international collaboration and we want to build productive partnerships with the world’s top universities.”

Thirteen Sydney academics are taking part including Professor Annamarie Jagose, the Dean of Arts and Social Sciences; Professor Sharon Kilbreath, Deputy Dean Academic in the Faculty of Health Sciences; Associate Professor Rae Cooper, Associate Dean in the University of Sydney Business School; and Professor Gemma Figtree, Research Lead for Cardiothoracic and Vascular Health at the Kolling Institute.

They will be joined by Hala Zreiqat, Professor of Biomedical Engineering, who is currently in Harvard on a Radcliffe Fellowship.