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Prof Clive Gray receives prestigious Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award
Author: Flow Communications
Published: 04/07/2024

​Stellenbosch University immunologist Professor Clive Gray received the prestigious Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award, which recognises world-class research that has far-reaching impact, on 3 July 2024.

“Professor Gray's research has the potential to revolutionise our understanding of how the human placenta functions and, from that, uncover new pathways to improving mother-child health. We are excited to watch this story unfold, as we have witnessed the stories of previous Harry Oppenheimer Fellows change the game in fields from biochemistry and biology to engineering, history, and zoology to mention a few" says Oppenheimer Memorial Trust (OMT) chair Rebecca Oppenheimer.

The fellowship and its accompanying R2.5-million grant is awarded to scholars of the highest calibre who are engaged in cutting-edge and internationally significant research that has particular application to the advancement of knowledge, teaching, research and development in South Africa and beyond.

“Receiving this award is very meaningful," says Professor Gray. “It's recognition of the work that I and my research group have been doing over many years. That OMT acknowledges the importance of what we do is very gratifying and rewarding."

Professor Gray's work is aimed at revealing new knowledge about how to manage the risks of premature birth, low birth weight and learning difficulties, by uncovering a predictive marker of adverse birth events. “Our work is niche, laboratory-based research using sophisticated techniques and tools. We need to know how diseases such HIV in pregnant women interferes with the growth of the placenta and how this, in turn, impacts adverse birth outcomes and disrupts maternal health. These adverse outcomes have a devastating effect on South African society, where impaired child and maternal health is linked with deprived early childhood development," says Professor Gray.

While antiretroviral treatment given to mothers living with HIV has been a huge success in preventing viral transmission from mother to child, there are many challenges remaining. Many babies born to these women are not as healthy as their counterparts who are born to HIV uninfected mothers. They often suffer from stunted growth, are more susceptible to viral and bacterial infections and some are born prematurely. These children also have long-term learning difficulties. It is not known whether the antiretroviral drugs play a role in these outcomes, or whether these conditions are related to a combination of their mother's HIV status and the effects of the drugs.

Professor Gray and his team have shown that women living with HIV who initiate antiretroviral drug treatment before they become pregnant have a condition known as maternal vascular malperfusion – poor placental blood vessel development. This condition elevates these mothers' risk of a premature birth and of their infants being of low birth weight. Generally, the mothers also suffer high blood pressure that can lead to increased risks of cardiovascular difficulties leading to major heart problems.R5C_0837.jpg

Professor Gray's work, for the first time, established a link between long-term antiretroviral treatment and premature birth. Professor Gray's research group has identified a molecule in the placenta that is responsible for poor placental blood vessel formation and potentially related to poor heart problems in the mother. The award will go towards establishing and validating this hypothesis.

A second focus of the project for Professor Gray is the capacity-building of South Africa's scientific research community, through the involvement of masters and doctoral students.

“I have over 25 years' experience in training students in immunology and laboratory techniques. I will use this award to further train the next generation of scientific leaders, while building a greater capacity to improve mother and child health," he says.

This aspect of the project fulfils one of OMT's aims – to build and strengthen South African academic research capabilities.

The project is multidisciplinary, involving HIV clinicians, cardiologists, immunologists, virologists and statisticians, says Professor Gray. He and the South African team from Stellenbosch University and the University of Cape Town will be collaborating with the University of Surrey. An advisory board of academics from several universities in South Africa and the United Kingdom will oversee the project's governance and scientific direction, says Professor Gray.

OMT introduced the fellowship in 2001 to commemorate Harry Oppenheimer's efforts to support human and intellectual development in South Africa, advance scholarship and encourage ideas.

Professor Elmi Muller, Dean of Stellenbosch University's Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, congratulated Professor Gray on receiving the award.

“Professor Clive Gray's seminal research in HIV immunology represents a pinnacle of scientific accomplishment on the African continent, offering a beacon of hope for mothers and children impacted by HIV. The prestigious Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award conferred upon Professor Gray stands as validation of the substantive contributions he has made to the field of HIV science over the course of his distinguished career," she says.

The university's Vice-Chancellor, Professor Wim de Villiers, added his congratulations. "This recognition underscores the groundbreaking nature and international significance of Professor Gray's work in predicting adverse birth outcomes and maternal cardiovascular health. Such awards not only celebrate individual excellence but also highlight the crucial role of funding in advancing research that can have profound impacts on public health in South Africa and globally."

Professor Gray leads the Reproductive Immunology Research Consortium in Africa (RIRCA). This is a consortium of immunologists and paediatricians conducting research into markers and mechanisms of poor birth and perinatal outcomes, with a focus on children who are born to mothers with HIV and other infectious diseases.

“We are delighted to add Professor Gray to our Harry Oppenheimer Fellows, all of whom have contributed to the advancement of knowledge in South Africa and beyond. Research capacity development is central to the Trust's commitment to supporting academic excellence," says Oppenheimer.

Main Photo: Professor Clive Gray at the award ceremony.  Photo 1: Jonathan Oppenheimer, Professor Sibusiso Moyo, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies at Stellenbosch University, Professor Clive Gray, Rebecca Oppenheimer, Chair of the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust, and Nicky Oppenheimer. Credit: Strike a Pose Studios​

  • Issued by Flow Communications on behalf of the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust. For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact Edwin Reichel on  or 082 558 3645.

About the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust

Investing in individuals to realise their full potential through education has always been at the heart of the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust (OMT). Established in 1958 by Harry Oppenheimer as an endowment trust to honour the memory of his father, Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, OMT strives to remain relevant to the current context. With this in mind, the trust has recently undergone a strategic shift to better serve the sectors they support, namely education, social justice and arts and culture. ​