Amid a devastating HIV epidemic, some South African pediatricians treat as many as 100 children per day. With such overwhelming case loads, the physicians have little time to review the information they were offered in medical school on the topic of immunology--a topic they often consider a laboratory science with little clinical application--to better understand factors contributing to HIV pathology.
Recognizing the potential value of an understanding of up-to-date immunology in the treatment of HIV, immunologist Clive Gray developed Immunopaedia, a Web site that quickly and efficiently gives doctors a working knowledge of immunology through real-life case studies and news of immunology breakthroughs.
"We have to be cutting-edge," says Gray. "Quick, useful information is key."
The knowledge provided by the Web site can mean a proper diagnosis of immunodeficiencies other than HIV, or the appropriate combination of drug treatments that complement, rather than nullify, each other. "We can help to uncover the needed information," Gray says.
Because of its effectiveness at meeting an urgent need and at presenting immunology in an easy-to-use format for all interested users, Immunopaedia has been selected to receive the Science Prize for Online Resources in Education (SPORE).
"What started as a Web site aimed at connecting the clinical relevance of immunology to the local healthcare setting in South Africa has resulted in a Web site whose purpose is highly charitable and universal in need," says Melissa McCartney, an editorial fellow at Science.
The Science Prize for Online Resources in Education (SPORE) was developed to single out the best online materials in science education. The acronym SPORE refers to a reproductive element adapted to develop, often in less-than-ideal conditions, into something new--suggesting that these winning projects may be the seed of significant progress in science education, despite considerable challenges to educational innovation. Science publishes an article by each recipient of the award, which explains the winning project. The article about Immunopaedia will be published in the September 24 issue of Science.
"Improving science education is an important goal for all of us at Science," says Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief. "We hope to help those innovators who have developed outstanding online resources reach a wider audience. Each winning Web site will be featured in an article in Science that is aimed at guiding science educators from around the world to valuable free online resources."
The origins of the Immunopaedia Web site date back to Gray's undergraduate years in England, when he found himself intellectually attracted to immunology because of the basic idea that a system exists in our bodies to protect the self.
"It was more of a philosophical appeal to me," Gray says. "From there, I began to learn more about the science."
In 1984, Gray moved to Johannesburg, South Africa, where he earned his PhD and conducted research in transplantation immunology. By 1994, he had moved into the topic of HIV, and went to Stanford to do post-doctoral research. When he returned to South Africa in 1998, he took a job at the institution he currently works for: The National Institute for Communicable Diseases at the University of Johannesburg. His initial work there was in T-cell immunology, but Gray had already begun to move into immunology education. Much of his work revolved around developing teaching strategies to train scientists among South Africa's young, black students, who had been disadvantaged by apartheid.
Immunopaedia received its main impetus when Gray won the International Leadership Award from the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation in 2004. For two years, he and his colleagues consulted with the 20 top HIV specialist pediatricians in South Africa, researching what was needed to bring knowledge of immunology to clinicians throughout the nation of South Africa and in all communities. Through their research, it became clear that a strong link to the clinicians' actual practice would be required to engage them, and case studies became that link. Real-life cases in which knowledge of immunology played a part "demystified" the science, Gray says.
"Using clinical cases was a very good way for us to enter into their world," he says, adding that even beginning medical students can understand Immunopaedia, particularly as science education in general moves toward an experiential-learning, problem-based model.
The breaking news that is also offered on the site gives users quick updates on new drugs, new vaccines, and new microbicides, to name just a few offerings.
"We'd like to enhance and enrich people's knowledge so that maybe they can make better decisions," Gray says.
Since its launch in 2006, Immunopaedia has gone from about 300 users a month to between 2,500 and 3,000, most of which are South African clinicians, although the site also attracts users from other parts of Africa, South America, and the United States. Some users are not physicians, but other healthcare providers, lab workers, and scientists. Meanwhile, the topics addressed have also expanded, and now include transplantation immunology, autoimmune disease, cancer, and primary immunodeficiency, among others.
Receiving the SPORE award should be "fantastic," Gray says, for increasing the site's usage.
Meanwhile, the site is nothing short of a revolution to how immunology has traditionally been taught in South Africa, and its real-life case studies will soon be compiled into a book for classroom use.
"The way it's been taught is in a very dry, abstract way," says Gray, "whereas with the case studies, we can say these are the tangible outcomes of an immune system dysfunction."
In the coming year, Gray will bring his approach into the academic realm, he says, as he steps into a job as the chair of immunology at the University of Capetown.
To visit Immunopaedia, go to immunopaedia.org.
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