Anne Lenaerts

Associate Professor, Colorado State University, USA

Anne Lenaerts started her career as a molecular biologist hoping to find a cure for cancer. But directly after completing her doctoral degree at State University of Gent in Belgium in 1996 she was offered a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Pretoria in South Africa and seized the opportunity.

Professor J. Verschoor, who was to supervise her work, wanted her to go in an entirely new direction -- to look at how certain biological compounds influence the immune response to tuberculosis (TB) infection.

"My work as a laboratory scientist took on a completely different meaning," she says. "Living in South Africa, my eyes were opened. Many people were living under terrible conditions, and those conditions became all the more devastating if they were affected by TB/HIV, which was rampant. I recognized that better drugs for treating TB would have a huge impact on people's lives and help get the people out of poverty."

She left South Africa when new opportunities and the promise of more funding for her research arose in the United States. Her current project at Colorado State University puts her at the epicentre of the search for new TB drugs, in part through a programme supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases. As a scientist at the Mycobacterial Research Laboratories at CSU, she has developed a number of laboratory tests and systems to improve and accelerate the testing of TB drugs. These technologies are used by laboratories around the globe.

"People from all over the world send us compounds they think might have activity against TB. So far the NIH programme has received and tested more than 85 000 compounds," she says. "When we find a compound that is promising, we give our data to suppliers--most of them pharmaceutical companies or university teams--so we can look together at how to improve those compounds." Two compounds the programme helped develop are now in clinical trials.

Lenaerts' work requires many hours at the bench, but she is still drawn back to South Africa. She travels to consult on research projects, including those led by South African teams of scientists.