A SARS martyr's legacy in Vietnam

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Professor Guido Forni (R) is perusing a vaccine for cancer and is helping research efforts in Vietnam. Professor Piero Cappuccinelli (L) directs the Carlo Urbani Center in Hue.

Foreign scientists continue down the trail blazed by Carlo Urbani, an Italian physician who discovered SARS in Vietnam before succumbing to the disease himself.

As soon as Johnny Chen checked into Hanoi's French Hospital Vietnam with flu and then pneumonia-like symptoms, nurses started falling sick left and right.

It was 2003 and the hospital was unsure of what the strange disease was and why it was spreading so fast. So they called in the WHO's Dr. Carlo Urbani.

Urbani was the first to identify that Chen was suffering from a new and extremely contagious disease that would be known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), soon to sweep East Asia and other regions.

Urbani worked tirelessly to keep those who had already been infected alive and he is credited with providing the WHO with the information it needed to swing into action. The organization later said Urbani had saved an unknown amount of lives with his quick action, and some experts said he had probably saved millions.

Sadly, the one life he couldn't save was his own. As he worked seflessly to help those afflicted with the strange new illness, he caught it himself and died soon thereafter in Bangkok.

But the message of his work lives on as two Italian doctors now continue to endeavor in Vietnam against two of the world's most extreme killers: cancer and infectious diseases.

Cultivating a cure

Professor Guido Forni, a scientist from Torino University who is working with medical students at the Hue College of Medicine and Pharmacology, and Piero Cappuccinelli, a professor of Clinical Microbiology at the University of Sassari who is working with Hue University and the Carlo Urbani Center, were both at the Hue Festival's Science Festival June 8.

At the opening ceremony, Forni discussed cancer research, a topic he is currently engaged in educating Vietnamese students about.

He said the search for a cure for cancer had been a long hard battle without a "final success."

But he said the road had not been without its progress.

"Last year, several sources reported good news about vaccines against lung, breast and blood cancer. And this year, the American Food and Drug Administration approved Provenge, a drug that could prevent prostate cancer."

But he said Provenge could be very expensive and difficult to apply.

Media reports have put the cost of Provenge at about US$75,000 but Forni said it could cost up to $90,000 in some cases. He also said the drug was still somewhat "experimental" and that blood needs to be taken and returned to patients in order to administer the dosage.

"There are now a lot of people around the world studying to improve this vaccine so it can be for everyone and cost nothing," Forni said.

The professor has been studying vaccines since 1974 and has recently begun to cook up his own cancer drug.

For two years, Forni has been testing the new drug he's developing on mice.

He said a recent batch of 2,000 mice afflicted with cancer and given his medicine had lived for two years, whereas the average cancer-afflicted mouse lives only six months.

"If the vaccine can help mice, it could help humans," he said, adding that the full results of his cancer vaccine research would not be released until 2013.

Until then, he's happy to be sharing his knowledge with students at the Hue College of Medicine And Pharmacology. He said he wants to work with Vietnamese scientists and doctors to help develop vaccines.

"Many kinds of vaccines have been produced effectively in Vietnam but not a cancer vaccine. Vietnamese scientists have different experiences and achievements in producing vaccines. I think we could work together with Vietnamese professors and students."

Dang Nhu Thanh, a third-year student at the Hue College of Medicine and Pharmacology, told Thanh Nien Weekly at the opening ceremony that he was happy to hear that Forni planned to help expand cancer research in Vietnam.

"It is good to hear this news about cancer vaccines... I'll be very happy if I'm lucky enough to have the opportunity to join professor Forni in testing and producing vaccines against cancer," he said.

Urbani legend

Professor Cappuceilli from the University of Sassari in Italy first came to Hue in 2001 with a group of students, at which point he decided he wanted to expand and deepen his cooperation with the country.

He soon signed an academic cooperation agreement with Hue University and opened training programs here funded by the Carlo Urbani Center in Hue, of which he is now the general director. Funding for the center, established in 2007 for over $1.5 million, comes from the Italian government.

"We are here to provide modern technology and improve training through projects on public health and infectious diseases, neurological disorders, pediatric surgery."

He said what had started as a small project in the beginning of 2001, was now a 2- million Euro collaboration.

Cappuceilli and the center provide training, research and references related to the control of respiratory infections in central Vietnam. The center operates two labs, one in Hue and one in the capital of Hanoi.

"We spend a lot of time in the laboratory in Hanoi and Hue studying, testing, and examining the different types of infectious diseases," he said.

Before Vietnam, Piero Cappuceilli had travelled with his students through both Thailand and Myanmar on exchange programs. But he decided to set up long term collaborations in Hue because he found cooperation easy there and he said he loves the city.

Thanks to exchange programs he's started, 50 Vietnamese students attend the University of Sassari in Italy to study medicine and pharmacology every year and the same number of Italian students also visit Hue University to study.

He said he was now working to improve intensive care units in Vietnam, which he said were key to stopping the spread of contagious diseases like bird flu, via training and the provision of new equipment and technology.

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