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June 12, 2009

Programme for Global Paediatric Research (PGPR) coordinates global research on developing world diseases

At the age of 65, Alvin Zipursky retired after 19 years as head of the Division of Haematology/Oncology at SickKids; but he just kept coming into the office. For three years he continued his research into forms of leukemia related to Down Syndrome, and in 1999 he began a five-year term as the first Canadian editor-in-chief of Pediatric Research, the official journal of the American Pediatric Society, the European Society for Paediatric Research and the Society for Pediatric Research. And since January 1, 2004, he has been the chair and scientific director of the Programme for Global Paediatric Research (PGPR) at SickKids.

Zipursky was inspired to found PGPR when he noticed during his editorship that very little was being done in the developed world to address the healthcare issues of the developing world. In 2004, he noticed that of 3,400 abstracts submitted to the Pediatric Academic Societies’ (PAS) annual meeting, the largest annual meeting of paediatric researchers in the world, not one dealt with diseases that were specific to low-income countries.

This disparity has become known as the 10/90 Gap: only 10 per cent of global health research resources are devoted to the health problems of the developing world, even though these countries are burdened with 90 percent of the world’s disease. “We’re talking about millions of children,” he says.

In developing countries, approximately 10 million children die each year from diseases such as malaria and newborn infections, even though paediatric diseases can be treated with a combination of preemptive antibiotics, immunization, parental education and the skilled care of knowledgeable obstetricians and paediatricians. Few of these resources are available in low-income countries.

Zipursky, together with Executive Director, Margaret Manley, founded PGPR to direct paediatric research capacity toward improving the health of children in developing countries. PGPR holds international symposia and workshops to educate researchers, bringing them together from throughout the world to discuss critical issues, determine research agendas and begin collaborations. PGPR also publishes information for use by researchers, government and non-government agencies around the world, linking organizations and individuals to ensure that key research takes place.

In January, PGPR co-hosted a three-day symposium in Cotonou, Benin, that gathered scientists and clinicians from five continents to discuss priorities in Sickle Cell Disease research, the potential for a global Sickle Cell Disease network, and to stimulate collaborations. The conference was presented in conjunction with the official opening of the newly expanded National Sickle Cell Disease Centre in Cotonou. “I’ve had a very long career in paediatrics,” says Zipursky. “You would not have seen something on this scale five, ten years ago.”

PGPR has raised the profile of global health issues and ignited the interest of researchers about the importance of global health, that just five years later the PAS received more than 50 abstracts dealing with diseases specific to the developing world. In addition, the PAS member societies have expressed strong interest in expanding their focus on global health and have asked PGPR to advise them in this work.

“We’re bringing this world of expertise to this world of need,” says Zipursky. “By bringing experts into the perspective and problems of the developing world, we hope to make a better world.”

Zipursky is still technically retired, though he volunteers full-time, continuing his work with PGPR, and with researchers across the globe.