AIGHD in person: Prof. Frank Cobelens

Curious, focused and thoughtful: those are all words that describe AIGHD Chairman Prof. Frank Cobelens.

He has worked at the organization since its inception in 2009, and seen it evolve from a small research group into a fully-fledged interdisciplinary institute. The institute was established by Prof. Joep Lange to help improve health and development through research. Prof. Lange was killed when the MH17 was shot down in Ukraine in July 2014, which killed all 298 passengers on board.

Prof. Cobelens wears two hats at AIGHD. He is one of the lead researchers in tuberculosis (TB) and he often serves as Principal Investigator on research projects. He also serves as Chairman of the Executive Board, which was established shortly after Prof. Lange’s passing to carry on his vision. As Chairman, Prof. Cobelens oversees the work of the organization, guiding its strategy. According to him, AIGHD has developed particular expertise in certain research areas over the years:

“AIGHD has a long history of research in infectious diseases such as HIV, drug resistance and TB, child health and health financing. We have shifted our focus within these areas. For example, in HIV we now focus on aging with HIV and HIV drug resistance, while in the beginning our work was mostly in antiretroviral treatment,” said Prof. Cobelens, adding that the priorities of the institute continue to evolve to meet the ever-changing global health field. “We are expanding our work in for example mental health and medicines supply, and linkages between health and development.”

The institute offers a platform for researchers to build national and international research collaborations and coordinates several large research projects.

“Our core strength centers on our research team and the collaborations that we have with partners locally and from all corners of the world. Our researchers build solid partnerships with other academic institutes, governments, NGOs and implementors. By doing so, we help create a critical mass that propel advances in global health and development.”

Research is just one of the focuses of the institute: education and policy are two areas where AIGHD has achieved significant impact.

“With respect to policy, we’ve have had a big impact in the field of HIV research and treatment guidelines. Our team has uncovered the rising trend in HIV drug resistance in Africa and highlighted the magnitude of the problem. We have researched how new financing methods help people pay for care, and we have evaluated breakthrough diagnostic tools in TB and shown how policymakers should evaluate diagnostic tools in the healthcare system.”

Undertaking research to improve care and treatment for TB

As part of his role as principal investigator, Prof. Cobelens leads his own team of researchers who specialize in TB. According to him, AIGHD is ideally positioned to undertake global health research:

“We don’t have all the answers when it comes to TB, but we support the global effort of TB elimination. I am aware that this requires a much larger response than what we are currently observing. First and foremost, it requires an effective vaccine and a tremendous scale up of preventive treatment. There are major epidemiological and health systems questions involved in this work that AIGHD can help answering.”

“Global health problems cannot be studied from a single perspective. We may know what the best treatment for a disease is, but what we are witnessing is an access problem with many dimensions including individual behavior, financing of care, and service delivery. At AIGHD, we combine expertise from different fields to find solutions that address all aspects of the problems that we study.”

In terms of achievements, the institute has much to celebrate since its beginning in 2009 – and Prof. Cobelens is looking forward to continuing the work alongside the entire AIGHD team:

“AIGHD celebrated ten years as a research institute last year. It is a time to review our achievements, and to look forward towards the coming ten years. We have recently been awarded several new grants so we are about to launch new research projects that will hopefully help improve global health.”

To learn more about the work of Prof. Cobelens, visit his profile page.