Are you a global research consortium looking for sites to test treatments for neglected tropical diseases? Or a major biotech company interested in performing clinical trials on potential tuberculosis vaccines? Or a doctor in a remote part of Africa or South Asia keen to play a role in the advancement of medical research? Either way, what you need is a matchmaker.
Oxford University’s Global Health Network is offering just that. Using techniques normally found on internet dating services, they have created a tool known as SiteFinder to help scientists working in global health find other research groups to collaborate with.
At the moment, major researchers tend to gravitate towards a few well-known centres in the developing world - in South Africa, for instance, or Kenya - while those in low-income countries have difficulty making themselves known to international or even local collaborators.
“What’s tended to happen is that teams like the Gates Foundation’s product-development partnerships stick with the sites they know, and go back to the same sites again and again,” Trudie Lang, the director of the Global Health Network, and the driving for behind the SiteFinder initiative, told IRIN. “But we would like to see greater equity in research, with wider access to these collaborations, and this would empower more people to have the confidence to take part in research.”
Lang herself worked on malaria at a number of sites in East Africa. “And what I saw was that there would be incredible investment and interest for a period of time, and we would build up a trained group of doctors, nurses, lab technicians and community health workers. Then it ends, and everything stops.
“These sites can, and should, and want to do more. We would like to see them branch out into other fields because malaria, for instance, is not the only health problem in their communities.”
Finding new partners
SiteFinder’s first match occurred after a Nigerian doctor put out a request for sites to collaborate on her research on stroke outcomes across Africa. Responses started pouring in as soon the request was posted; she got the eight partners she was looking for in just 36 hours.
Patrick Ansah works at Navrongo Health Research Centre in the far north of Ghana. In February, Navrongo was one of the first research centres put forward for inclusion on SiteFinder. “In Africa,” Ansah said, “funding for research is problematical. It’s not one of our priorities. So collaboration with outside institutions provides money for research and builds the capacity of our institution.”
The Navrongo centre has conducted an impressive series of research projects since it opened in 1988. It did early work on vitamin A supplementation, and ran clinical trials on malaria drugs and potential malaria, meningitis and rotavirus vaccines. But for the moment, new collaborative projects are scarce.
Though Ansah has not yet been approached for collaborations through SiteFinder, he is hopeful new partnerships will emerge. “I think it is a good idea,” he told IRIN. “With the economic downturn, research funding has dried up, and it’s hard to get grants. But this could link us with different groups, groups we have had no contact with so far.”
“Studies seeking sites”
SiteFinder is laid out in a style similar to dating websites, but instead of “men seeking women” or vice versa, it has sections for “studies seeking sites” and for the potential research centres they might collaborate with. The database can be searched by disease type, facility type (such as laboratories or outpatient clinics) or region.
So far, 60 sites have joined, ranging from large, internationally known centres like the Medical Research Council in the Gambia, to small facilities like the Bengoz Maternity Home in Lagos, which has only two staff people.
The system has great potential to speed up work on emerging pathogens like the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which has caused an alarming outbreak in Saudi Arabia. It is normally difficult to conduct research during outbreaks because assembling teams in different locations is very time-consuming. But with tools like SiteFinder, collaborative networks could be set up quickly.
The people behind SiteFinder say they have tried to keep it as inclusive as possible, open to various kinds of facilities, academic departments, not-for-profit partnerships and - most controversially - commercial pharmaceutical companies. Lang says you have to respect the right of partners in developing countries to decide which projects are right for them.
“I don’t think the Constant Gardener scenario is so likely to happen these days, where populations are used for research on drugs which will be of no relevance to them. And drug companies bring research to a country - training and investment,” she said. “I think it would be simplistic and patronizing to say we will only deal with not-for-profits. It’s the commercial companies which bring money in. We at Oxford University benefit from that money, and research centres elsewhere should have the same opportunity.”