Dr. Gladys Maestre, a Venezuelan scientist who earned her Ph.D. at P&S six years ago, has no problem obtaining money in her country to buy equipment for her laboratory. But finding qualified Venezuelan scientists to help with her research about aging and Alzheimer's disease is more challenging.
A new five-year training grant from the Fogarty International Center of the National Institutes of Health to the Columbia Genome Center and the University of Zulia in Venezuela should now help her. The grant will support young Venezuelan scientists to study common and rare heritable diseases in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Columbia was one of six sites to receive the grant, the first such funding from Fogarty to support international genetics training. Dr. T. Conrad Gilliam, the genome center's director and the grant's principal investigator, says the $1.9 million funding, which was announced last month, will support six to eight Venezuelan graduate students and postdoctoral researchers while they train at the genome center. The students are expected to arrive at Columbia in July 2003. Dr. Maestre is the grant's co-principal investigator.
"We're very excited," says Dr. Maestre, who quickly started writing the grant after seeing the program announcement on the NIH website. "The grant will plant the seeds for growth in the study of the genetics of complex, heritable diseases and for the study of key Mendelian disorders."
The Fogarty award is meant to increase the capacity of scientists in developing countries to conduct genetic research relevant to each country's health needs. Drs. Maestre and Gilliam targeted their grant to two research fields that could easily be transferred to Venezuela: bioinformatics, which mostly depends on brain and computer power and not large amounts of lab space or supplies, and chemical engineering.
"Venezuela lives on oil, so we're very strong in chemistry," Dr. Maestre says. "And one of the strongest points of the genome center is the development of new chemical technologies for the study of genomics. We have a solid core of chemists in Venezuela and now we want to attract these people into genomics."
Students and postdoctoral researchers in Venezuela who are interested in applying for the grant's scholarships will take a six-month long preparatory course at the University of Zulia. The course will bring everyone up to date on basic genetics, molecular biology, and statistics and also teach English, public policy, ethics and cultural differences the students may find in New York.
"We want them to acquire not only basic knowledge but also develop critical thinking strategies and anticipate cultural differences like speaking in class," Dr. Maestre says. "In the United States, you're expected to voice your opinion in class and you can disagree with your teachers. We don't want Venezuelan students to be shocked and think everyone is aggressive."
When the students arrive at Columbia, each will be free to pursue projects of their own interest, but all will receive a balanced exposure to clinical training and laboratory mentoring, as well as workshops on ethical issues and community genetics. "One problem we have in complex diseases is that statisticians, for example, don't know what the disease looks like," Dr. Maestre says. "We want our awardees to know the patient and the disease as well as appreciate the rigor of sound scientific investigation."
Drs. Maestre and Gilliam expect that students' projects in the genetics of Huntington's disease, Alzheimer's disease, and cardiovascular disorders will be valuable to Columbia researchers and the Venezuelan community. Many Venezuelan families are large and have four or five generations alive at once.
"The large Venezuelan families provide a unique opportunity for gene mapping," says Dr. Gilliam, who is also the John E. Borne Professor of Genetics and Development (in Psychiatry). This point was eloquently demonstrated in 1980 by the pioneering work of a Columbia scientist, Dr. Nancy Wexler, who led the study to map the Huntington's disease gene. In the mid 1980s Dr. Gilliam joined Dr. Wexler's team as a postdoctoral fellow. "It is very fulfilling," says Dr. Gilliam, "to have this opportunity to return something to the community that helped launch the genetics revolution in the early 80s."
The grant's investigators also hope to investigate how culture affects disease progression. "We want to assess the risks for disease in our own biological and cultural environment," Dr. Maestre says. "For example, fish may be good to prevent cardiovascular disease in Americans, but is it good if it's cooked the way it is in Venezuela?"
Money also will go to support programs in Venezuela to make the country attractive to the newly trained researchers and prevent brain drain. Scientists at Venezuelan universities will collaborate with Columbia faculty via teleconferencing, keeping researchers and students from both countries in touch. Awardees also will receive re-entry money to establish themselves in Venezuela.
"I think the program is going to be successful," Dr. Maestre says. "People at Columbia seem to care a lot, not just because of the research, but because they know how important this is to Venezuela."