The alarming explosion of cardio-metabolic diseases in sub-Saharan Africa in recent years – and the glaring lack of good research into the underlying causes and therapeutic options for these illnesses – was what sparked the idea for a specialized cardio-metabolic research centre at Stellenbosch University.
In March this year the Centre for Cardio-metabolic Research in Africa (CARMA) was established in the Division of Medical Physiology at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, and will have as its other core member, the Department of Physiological Sciences in the Faculty of Science.
The centre, which was the brain child of Professor Faadiel Essop from the Department of Physiological Sciences will conduct cutting-edge research into cardio-metabolic diseases, such as obesity, diabetes, the metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular diseases. Essop is director while Hans Strijdom, associate professor in the Division of Medical Physiology, is deputy director of the centre which has been five years in the making.
The centre will have a specific focus on diseases which affect people in South Africa and the rest of the continent.
Essop and Strijdom held a meeting in July with researchers and staff of the new centre to plan the way forward.
“The meeting included the development of core themes and the re-alignment of existing research activities that will, from now onwards, fall under the auspices of the centre," said Strijdom.
He said that lifestyle diseases have become as much of a cause for concern as infectious diseases in Africa. What is really lacking in the African context is an answer to the question of what is causing these diseases and what processes at an organ, tissue and cellular level are driving these diseases.
“We still do not know if these processes or mechanisms are different in the African context than in other contexts, such as North America, Australia and Europe."
Strijdom said the underlying mechanisms and therapeutic options have remained poorly researched in the local context because “we have, in my view, been relying so much on research performed outside of the African continent to guide us in treating these diseases.
“We are still, to a large extent, neglecting the potential therapeutic agents in our own environment. We want to start highlighting the role of African medicinal plants. We might find excellent therapeutic options in our own back yard – but these options are still unexplored. We focus on exploring those avenues. Such novel therapies may not cure these diseases, but there are many possibilities on how we can at least slow the progression down."
Turning to the evolution of the centre, Strijdom said that Essop came up with the original idea about five years ago.
“Several formal and informal meetings followed, including a larger group of stakeholders, which eventually resulted in the establishment of the centre. Our main objectives are to perform excellent research and innovation in cardio-metabolic diseases relevant to Africa and South Africa, create learning and teaching opportunities for postgraduate students from South Africa and Africa in the field of cardio-metabolic diseases, and actively participate in social impact initiatives that lead to greater awareness about cardio-metabolic diseases in the general public."
Strijdom said CARMA strives to become an internationally recognised centre for research and training in the field of cardio-metabolism in Africa, utilising basic scientific and clinical research models. Plans are afoot for an official opening ceremony in early 2020, as well as high-level symposia that will showcase state-of-the-art research in this field.
The centre received the official go-ahead from Senate in March this year after almost five years of “sharing ideas, meeting with stake-holders, planning and eventually starting the process of establishing the Centre.
“The meeting in July was a 'brain-storming' session to which staff, researchers, post-doctoral fellows and students from the two core research groups (from the Department of Physiological Sciences at the Stellenbosch campus and the Division of Medical Physiology at Tygerberg campus) were invited. At this meeting, we mainly focused on how to re-align the existing research projects in the two research groups so that they can form central themes or focus areas under the umbrella of the new centre. We have decided on a number of central themes to which all existing and future research activities will be linked. We have also started putting together a Management Committee that will look after the day-to-day running of the centre. Decisions were also made on short to medium term operational matters, including quarterly meetings that will deal with research updates from members as well as management matters, establishing an annual symposium, and finally on an official opening ceremony planned for early 2020.
He said the core themes to be looked at in the research will be based on:
- common cardio-metabolic diseases relevant to the African/South African context: Diabetes, obesity, HIV and drug-induced cardiotoxicity;
- the organs/tissues affected by these diseases: the heart, vasculature, endothelium and adipose tissue;
- underlying mechanisms: oxidative stress, inflammation, signaling pathways and mitochondrial dynamics; and
- exploration of potential interventions aimed at the prevention or treatment of the diseases/disease conditions: rooibos, medicinal plants and antioxidants.