UH shares expertise in AIDS


POSTED: Monday, March 09, 2009

Second of Two Parts

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam » A visit by a retired Vietnamese-American doctor from Hawaii to the medical school where he was a professor more than 30 years ago is leading to a research partnership between the University of Hawaii and, in Ho Chi Minh City, the University of Medicine and Pharmacy and the Tropical Disease Hospital.

Dr. Thanh The Nguyen, a retired tuberculosis specialist from the state Health Department, left Vietnam in 1973 to attend the School of Public Health at the University of Hawaii.

He stayed after the fall of Saigon and had never returned to the Ho Chi Minh City medical school until about four years ago. UH AIDS researcher Dr. Cecilia Shikuma asked for his help in starting up a training program for doctors in Vietnam learning to administer AIDS treatments.

“;The kids who used to be my medical students, they became chairmen of the departments,”; Nguyen said.

“;People there are very enthusiastic. They like to do research,”; Nguyen said. “;They like to do work with UH, which is also my alma mater, and the University of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) is where I used to teach.”;

Last month in Vietnam, Shikuma and Dr. Phuoc Van Dang, chancellor of the University of Medicine and Pharmacy in Ho Chi Minh City, signed papers to establish the partnership.

Dr. Thuy Le, a Vietnamese-American doctor who is being hired as a UH medical school faculty member, will coordinate the research efforts and help the University of Medicine and Pharmacy and the Tropical Disease Hospital develop their research capabilities in AIDS treatment.

“;I grew up here,”; Le said. “;I feel that I can really bring something to the country. I felt like when I left (Vietnam), I was one of the lucky people. Medicine and research is something the country really needs. I felt a calling to do this.”;

Le is working on a research fellowship, developing treatment protocol for a fungus infection called penicillium manneffi, which is mostly found in Southeast Asia.

The current treatment has severe side effects and is expensive—about $25 a dose for the medicine. Le is looking at whether another medicine—a pill with fewer side effects that costs $1 to $2 a dose—will be an effective alternative.

UH is proposing to study treatments for both HIV and hepatitis patients in Vietnam.

The project, called the South East Asian Research Collaboration with Hawaii, or SEARCH Vietnam, builds upon an existing UH research effort in Thailand.

Shikuma, working with the Thai Red Cross and U.S. military doctors, has been studying treatments for and the relationship between AIDS and dementia. The initial results will be published this month, she said.

“;Each region of the world is unique,”; Shikuma said. “;Depending on the disease, it (medical conditions) can be a lot more prevalent outside the U.S.”;

Le said the Vietnamese doctors are capable of conducting their own research but are not as familiar with the protocols for clinical trials and grant-writing skills that she learned going to school in America.

“;We can help build HIV clinical research capability in Vietnam,”; she said.

Shikuma said the project fits into what the university and the medical school see as a core value.

“;UH does have a mission for social responsibility to the Pacific Rim and Southeast Asia,”; Shikuma said. “;That's kind of our area of the globe.”;

This report was supported by the Project for International Health Journalism Fellowship Program as part of the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation's Media Fellowship Program.