Eliminating Hepatitis 5,000 Miles Away

Drs. Kamkamidze (left) and Butsashvili (right) collaborate with a colleague at NeoLab, one of the leading clinics in the country of Georgia focusing on infectious and allergy-immunology diseases.

ALBANY, N.Y. (Aug. 30, 2018) – The School of Public Health’s (SPH) location in New York isn’t preventing it from advancing public health more than 5,000 miles away in the country of Georgia, thanks to an ongoing partnership and dedicated SPH alumni.

Together with SUNY Downstate Medical Center (SUNY DMC), SPH and its Center for Global Health (CGH) have spent the past 25 years building HIV and infectious disease research capacity in Eastern Europe and Central Asia by training international researchers in Albany who take their expertise back home to improve public health.

Georgian Dr. Maia Butsashvili received a Ph.D. in epidemiology in 2010 and her husband, Dr. George Kamkamidze, received his master’s degree in biostatistics from UAlbany in 2009. Both also hold doctor of medicine degrees from Tbilisi State Medical University, and were trained through the New York State International Training and Research Program (NYS-ITRP), a joint initiative of CGH and SUNY DMC.

Funded by the Fogarty International Center, NYS-ITRP trains students to advance public health and build research capacity in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. A major goal of the program is to train students who then return to their home countries to address critical public health problems with an emphasis on HIV and related infectious diseases.

Butsashvili and Kamkamidze are prime examples of this goal coming to fruition, says John Justino, director of CGH. Both have returned to their home country and are now professors at Tbilisi State University (TSU) and are helping to lead Georgia’s groundbreaking project to eliminate hepatitis C. Funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Gilead Pharmaceuticals, the project entails testing treatment methods that are considered highly effective but also costly.

According to the National Institutes of Health, Georgia has one of the world’s highest prevalence of hepatitis C. Experts believe that the country’s high burden of disease combined with its manageable size and screening infrastructure make it an ideal country to attempt complete elimination of the disease.

Kamkamidze and Butsashvili credit the success of their current work with the training they received in Albany. Kamkamidze, who was a post-doctoral fellow in laboratory sciences at the Wadsworth Center for Laboratories and Research before his degree study, says “My work at UAlbany and the Wadsworth Center helped me tremendously in establishing a laboratory for molecular diagnostics and research. This lab, called ‘NeoLab,’ became one of the leading clinics in Georgia focusing on the diagnostics and treatment of infectious and allergy-immunology diseases and is the primary clinic implementing this funded project.”

Along with clinical activities, Kamkamidze’s team is conducting multiple international research projects focusing on the public health, epidemiology, virology and immunogenetics aspects of different infections including HIV/AIDS, hepatitis B and C, papillomaviruses, herpesviruses and others.

Together Kamkamidze and Butsashvili founded the Health Research Union, a leading non-governmental organization in Georgia established specifically to target critical healthcare issues, including the prevention, counseling, education and treatment of infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis. The Health Research Union is a key component of the hepatitis C elimination project, leading the research associated with the program.

Butsashvili, who also received a master’s degree at UAlbany, said “The training I received at UAlbany was critically important for my career advancement — I used the skills gained in Albany to develop and implement different public health projects of priority importance for my country. Now as a director of the Health Research Union and a member of the advisory committee overseeing the national hepatitis C elimination program, I am actively involved in this ground-breaking program.”

According to Jack DeHovitz, a distinguished service professor at Downstate Medical and principal investigator of the NYS-ITRP, the involvement of NYS-ITRP alumni in part contributed to Gilead’s and the CDC’s decision to fund the landmark study.

“The partnership between SUNY Downstate Medical Center and UAlbany has had a dramatic impact in Georgia by training epidemiologists and laboratory experts in public health, clinical and research settings,” said DeHovitz, who is also an adjunct professor at UAlbany. “We are glad to continue this partnership which builds on the complementary expertise at two SUNY campuses.”

Justino traveled to Georgia this summer with DeHovitz to meet with partners and to explore new collaboration opportunities.

According to Justino, the SPH’s long-term partnerships in Georgia are “both strategically important and a source of great pride.”

“We are particularly proud that nearly all of the 30 Georgian HIV research scientists trained through this partnership have returned to Georgia to take on important public health research and national public health leadership roles,” said Justino. “We are extremely proud of George and Maia’s accomplishments and scientific contributions, and to have them as part of our global alumni community.”

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