Dr Gabriel Mashabela, a specialist scientist with the SAMRC Centre for TB Research, recently received the Grand Challenges Africa Award from the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA). The award will help to fund his research, which is studying South African medicinal plants for potential new treatments against tuberculosis (TB).
Mashabela was born in a small village in Limpopo province, called Ga-Mongatane, where he also matriculated at the Lesailane High School. In 1999 he was offered a European Union-funded scholarship to attend a foundation course at the University of the North (now called the University of Limpopo).
He then did a BSc degree in molecular and life sciences, followed by an honours degree in biochemistry, and an MSc in chemical pathology at the University of Cape Town (UCT), which was converted to a PhD. He did two post-doctoral fellowships – one at Basel University in Switzerland and one at UCT. His research focused on mycobacterial metabolic pathways that are relevant to TB pathogenesis.
In 2018 he joined the SAMRC Centre for TB Research at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Stellenbosch University.
The AESA grant is specifically awarded for Drug Discovery Research. "I am so excited to be among the few recipients of this grant, and feel very fortunate, because there were a lot of good proposals that were not funded," says Mashabela.
AESA was founded in 2015 and is a partnership of the African Academy of Sciences and the African Union Development Agency. AESA's mission is to shift the centre of gravity for African science to Africa through agenda-setting, mobilising research and development funding, and managing continent-wide science, technology and innovation programmes.
Mashabela received a $100 000 seed grant awarded over two years to support basic drug discovery research. The project aims to identify new hit molecules against Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which is the bacteria which causes TB. The grant will pay for student bursaries/salaries, equipment and consumable costs for the project as well as for travel.
"The main goal of the project is to identify new hit molecules against Mycobacterium tuberculosis using innovative CRISPRi mutant strains developed in our research group as screening model organisms. These screening model organisms have been designed to focus on genes that are unique and absolutely required for survival of Mycobacterial pathogens," he explains.
He adds that these drug screening models do not only help with identification of bioactive hit compounds, but also provide clues about the mechanisms of action. Hits identified in the screens are also expected to overcome most difficult challenges encountered in early drug discovery such as cytotoxicity, failure to permeate through bacterial cell membranes and pre-existing resistance mechanisms.
"Working with local collaborators from the University of Limpopo who have extensive experience in ethno-pharmacology, we intend to use South African medicinal plants as sources of the compound library for this project," adds Mashabela.
His research group is called the Mycobacterium Metabolism Research Group (MMRG) and there are four MSc students working on the project: Mischke Nicolaai, Tumelo Maila, Gugulethu Mahlakwana, and Nenekazi Masikantsi.