Dr Charissa Naidoo is one of six South African researchers who were recently awarded a grant from the L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science South African National Young Talents Programme.
Naidoo, a postdoctoral researcher in the Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics at Stellenbosch University's Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, who is also part of the Clinical Mycobacteriology and Epidemiology (CLIME) Group where she is studying the gut microbiome of patients with tuberculosis (TB), which she hopes will lead to innovative diagnosis tools and more accessible treatments.
TB is the world's leading infectious cause of death. Studies on diverse microbial communities in the lower airways (lung microbiome) have, to date, focused on diseases relevant to the developed world, but remain understudied in TB. This is especially important in African populations where efforts to control the disease are impeded by disproportionately high rates of poverty and HIV. Naidoo's research shows how – even before antibiotic treatment – patients with TB have a unique gut microbiome: this could lead to innovative diagnostic tools and more accessible treatments.
The research integrates innovative clinical, laboratory and computational approaches to understand how the microbiome and the host interacts at the site of disease and is the first of its kind. In addition to building African expertise, the research will lay the foundation for large-scale clinical trials with therapeutic agents that target the microbiome, to improve long-term TB clinical outcomes.
Naidoo isn't a newcomer to achievement, with myriad awards and grants under her belt – including a Career Development Fellowship from the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP).
Her studies on the impact of lung microbiomes is internationally ground-breaking and its appeal, to her, lies in the fact that it falls with an exciting and new area of research; that it comprises a unique blend of basic science, clinical science and bioinformatics and – most importantly – addresses a critical knowledge gap in this disease.
“Our bodies consist of trillions of bacteria known as 'the microbiome' which are important for our health," she explains. “However, we do not yet understand its relationship with TB – the biggest killer in South Africa. Although TB can be cured, patients have to take many pills for a long period of time and often do not complete their treatment."
Motivated by the formidable challenge that tuberculosis presents in South Africa, “especially amongst the poor and vulnerable", her dream is to see an end to TB in the country. “Rather than chasing wealth, I have committed myself to pursuing a career for a worthy cause that would lead to improved quality of life," she explains.
This fellowship is especially meaningful to her work because she points out that there is an acute shortage of funding opportunities for postdoctoral fellows in South Africa. The benefits of the fellowship are short and long term – material collected in her project will enable Naidoo to initiate a long-term research programme at her current institution.
“This research grant will increase my eligibility for competitive funding opportunities, thereby opening new doors," she explains. “It will also allow me to strengthen my scientific track-record, thereby enhancing my candidacy within the faculty."
In the pursuit of her goals, she is confronted by challenges over and above a lack of funding, such as an insufficiency of local analytical expertise and infrastructure for complex relevant data analysis.
Charissa used 2020's shutdown to work remotely, finalising data analyses, preparing manuscripts and participating in virtual microbiome workshops. Naidoo embodies the advice that she gives to younger girls, with an interest in science. She emphasises that that they shouldn't be afraid to step out of comfort zones. In addition she says, “Volunteer or intern at a research laboratory and identify good mentors who are invested in your academic development."
She explains the impact of the fellowship on her scientific career, as a woman: “Being a recipient of this award is extremely encouraging and empowering. Science is still a male-dominated field, where fewer and fewer woman scientists are retained further along the career path. This award will not only permit my own career development but also enable me to mentor other young women scientists. In this way, we will enhance local capacity and, in the long-term, help bridge the gender gap in science."