Stellenbosch University
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SU co-leads groundbreaking TB research project
Author: Susan Erasmus
Published: 21/07/2020

​​​​​Professor Samantha Sampson, a senior researcher with the Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics at Stellenbosch University, is one of three eminent researchers who has received an award from the American National Institutes of Health (NIH) for research on therapies aimed at the eradication of tuberculosis.

The research will be done at three different sites, two in South Africa, and one in the United States. There will also be collaborators on the project from the University of Zimbabwe.

"This project provides an opportunity to take an innovative and multi-disciplinary approach in tackling the enormous public health problem represented by TB," said Sampson. "On a personal note, I have enjoyed collaborating with Professor Dube [from the University of the Western Cape] since 2016, so it is great that our groundwork and the potential of this research has been recognised by the NIH."

But, according to Professor Sampson, the award is the result of a team effort: "I would also like to include a thank you to Professor Helena Kuivaniemi (also in the Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics), who very capably and graciously mentored me through the grant writing process."

TB remains a global public health threat

Tuberculosis remains a major global public health threat and the World Health Organisation estimates that just in South Africa, around 301 000 people fell ill with TB during 2018. In the same year approximately 63 000 thousand South Africans died from this disease – about two-thirds of them were HIV-positive. TB is the leading cause of death due to infectious disease in this country.

Although available treatments are mostly effective, the incidence of drug-resistant TB strains and bacterial persistence continue to be problematic.

Research on eradication of all forms of TB

The research for which the NHI has given this award, focuses on using engineered nanoparticles to modulate the response of the white blood cells, which are rendered less effective by the TB bacterium when the immune system tries to fight this bacterial infection. These nanoparticles mimic the appearance of the bacteria, and appear to induce the killing of the virulent mycobacterium tuberculosis. It is thought that they may be effective in eradicating all forms of tuberculosis, including those that are drug-resistant and persistent.

The award, given over a five-year period, is worth just under R30 million ($1,632, 268), and Stellenbosch University is one of the sites where the research will be done.

Principal Investigators and collaborators

The other two recipients of the award, who, together with Sampson, will be the principal investigators on this project, are Professor Admire Dube and Professor Joshua Reineke (South Dakota State University in the USA) and these universities will also be research sites, making this an inter-institutional project.

Collaborators on this project will also include the following

  • Dr Nelita du Plessis, senior scientist, Stellenbosch University (role: co-investigator)
  • Dr Charles Maponga, professor, University of Zimbabwe (role: mentor and supervisor)
  • Ms Faithful Makita, PhD candidate, University of Zimbabwe (role: trainee)
  • Dr Gene Morse, professor, University at Buffalo (role: mentor.
​Dr Christian Serre, from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in France, will supply the initial metal organic framework materials as well as provide expertise in their modification and experimental use. 

"We are very excited to start the work on this project," according to Sampson.​

Photo credit: Stefan Els