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South African Student Conducting Important HIV Work at U.Va.

She’s traveled thousands of miles from rural South Africa to the University of Virginia School of Medicine so that she can make a difference in her country’s battle against HIV.

Lufuno Mavhandu, who grew up in the small village of Muduluni, is conducting research at U.Va. as part of an important collaboration between the Myles H. Thaler Center for AIDS and Human Retrovirus Research in the School of Medicine and the Department of Microbiology at South Africa’s University of Venda. Her work with her U.Va. mentors, HIV experts Dr. Marie-Louise Hammarskjold and David Rekosh, will allow the 31-year-old to obtain her doctorate from the University of Venda – commonly called “Univen” – in the spring.

A longstanding relationship between U.Va. and Univen has allowed for a powerful exchange of knowledge and ideas between two institutions on two different continents in two different hemispheres.

“You come and gain experience, then you go back to your university and give back to the university,” Mavhandu explained. “You have to teach other people what you have learned – the techniques that the University of Venda doesn’t have but the University of Virginia can offer, as well as what the University of Venda has that the University of Virginia doesn’t have. So it’s a give-and-take relationship. A true exchange of ideas.”

Mavhandu’s time in the United States has required her and her family to make sacrifices. Traveling far from home for her training has often been difficult for the wife and young mother. But those personal sacrifices have been trumped by the importance of her work and what it could mean for her fellow South Africans.

Mavhandu is working to develop a bioassay to test for drug resistance in the HIV virus’ subtype C. That subtype is the most common in South Africa, Asia and India, but has been the subject of less research than the subtype most common in the United States.

The bioassay will allow scientists to screen compounds from South African plants that are thought to have anti-HIV replication abilities.

“There are so many plants that are capable of helping people who have low immune systems,” Mavhandu said. “Anti-microbial, anti-fungal, anti-viral or anti-HIV – those plants are known especially by the traditional healers, so it helps us as scientists to have a molecular understanding.”

When Hammarskjold and Rekosh came to U.Va. in the 1990s, they had not intended to become involved in international education, but now it is a passion.

“We’re very much involved in training people from South Africa because we really believe South Africans should find South Africa’s solutions,” Rekosh said. “We would hope we can train scientists there who can start dealing with the drug-resistance problem when it starts to become a problem.”

The relationship between U.Va. and Univen – a collaboration that spans several departments and centers at U.Va. – has brought about many great friendships, including a strong bond between Mavhandu and her mentors. “She is,” Hammarskjold said, “like a daughter to us.”

Once she has completed her doctorate, Mavhandu hopes to obtain a research position at Univen so that she can continue the work she has under way.

“I think for me to be there I can make things change,” she said. “I don’t know how yet. I don’t know if that is possible. But the little input I can make, it will make our department, especially, to grow. I know I have influenced it to be what it is now.

“There is strong research going on there, but there are still some things we are still learning, as we are in a developing country. But I trust that in a couple of years, our university will have the best.”

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