When Professor Clive Gray was a young third-year student in Bristol in the UK in the early 1980s, he went to his first immunology lecture and was “completely fascinated".
“I was immediately struck by the anti-idiotypic theory about how antibodies against other antibodies could theoretically mimic the original pathogen and so represent a mirror image of the invading organism. To me, this was extraordinarily intellectually fascinating," said Gray, who recently joined the Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics.
“It also fascinated me that you could have immune cells that could recognize foreign material as non-self, but in a context of self. So, to get an activated immune system, you have a self/non-self recognition through T cell receptor recognition and the major histocompatibility complex. This combined complexity of antibodies and T cell interactions seemed a marvel to me".
“This was probably nearly 40 years go. The antibody theory fell away as nobody could prove it, but the self/non-self-concept is very much a paradigm today and we have added onto it other ways we can view the immune system. For me, the discipline actually crosses over into philosophy."
Gray, a cellular immunologist whose area of expertise is HIV and AIDS, is widely known for his passion for immunology, a discipline which “connects nutrition, metabolism, physiology, pathology and all areas of health" and which he believes does not get enough attention in Africa.
Previously the Chair and Professor of the Division of Immunology at the University of Cape Town, and Director of the Laboratory for Tissue Immunology at the NHLS/Groote Schuur Hospital labs, he said he is excited to have moved to Stellenbosch University.
“I wanted to step away from university leadership and go back into research and teaching. I am very excited to be part of the division."
Gray will, among other things, be establishing a reproductive immunology centre within the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences. “At present, there is no such entity at the university. There are plenty of initiatives around reproductive health but not yet for reproductive immunology.
“As an immunologist who has focused on HIV immunology for more than 20 years, my orientation will be around HIV, but will also be broader. For instance, I will look at issues such as what causes pre-eclampsia or pre-term birth or low birth weight or adverse birth outcomes. At the heart of immunology is tolerance, what prevents a developing baby being rejected by the mother's body? As such, adverse birth outcomes has to have an immunologic basis and what leads to the premature breaking of tolerance?"
One of his main aims is to promote and expand immunology and reproductive immunology in South Africa through innovative teaching and to establish immunology as a specialist area in the medical curriculum.
“It is a discipline that links everything together … and the ultimate goal is to make interventions, treatments or preventions, whether it be with a vaccine, or some kind of drug intervention. But before we get there, we need to understand the basics."
Gray continued: “Reproductive immunology does not really exist as a discipline in Africa. We have such a huge burden of disease that may lead to adverse birth outcomes, such as still births and pre-terms births, that we need to understand how maternal health during pregnancy impacts on the developing child in the womb. The link between the mother and child is through the placenta so it makes perfect sense to study the placenta. South Africa is one of the few places in the world we can do this in the human and link this to the huge disease burden."
Gray was born in London in 1961 and went to school in North London, before attending university in Bristol, in western England. He left the UK in 1984 and moved to South Africa.
He subsequently graduated with an MSc and PhD from the University of the Witwatersrand and then spent three years as a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University's, Centre for AIDS Research in California.
Back in South Africa, he became head of HIV Immunology at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, Johannesburg, where he built up a world-class immunology laboratory. His interest has been, particularly, in understanding the immunopathogenesis of HIV and what is required for vaccine-induced immunity. He has since played a key role in several vaccine initiatives.
In 2004, he received the International Leadership Award from the Elizabeth Glaser Paediatric AIDS Foundation, enabling him to start the online immunology learning web-site Immunopaedia (www.immunopaedia.org.za), which is now the official International Union of Immunology Societies' (IUIS) online learning site.
In 2011 Gray became the Chair and Head of the Division of Immunology at UCT where he worked before joining Stellenbosch University.
The father of two daughters, aged 23 and 17, whose wife works in the Department of General Linguistics at Stellenbosch, enjoys jogging to keep healthy. When he is not working, Gray indulges another passion – photography, and he aims to do a book on photographs from his travels.
“As the vice-chair of the Education Committee of the IUIS, I have helped to devise and present immunology courses in many parts of Africa. I love to go off with my camera during down time at the workshops to take photos.
“I've been to Benin, Gambia, Kenya, Uganda and Tunisia… and the last face-to-face meeting we had was in Ethiopia at the start of 2020. These places are fascinating and rich in culture. It has been frustrating not to be able to travel during Covid-19, although we now offer courses online through Immunopaedia."