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FMHS’ Prof Novel Chegou awarded prestigious Royal Society Africa Prize’ Prof Novel Chegou awarded prestigious Royal Society Africa PrizeFMHS Marketing & Communications / FGGW Bemarking & Kommunikasie – Tyrone August<p>Prof Novel Chegou of Stellenbosch University's Department of Biomedical Sciences is this year's winner of the Royal Society Africa Prize, an annual award by the United Kingdom's national science academy which recognises the innovative contribution of an African research scientist.<br></p><p>Chegou, who is based in the Stellenbosch University Immunology Research Group (SU-IRG) of the Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics, is being honoured for his work in the fields of pulmonary and extrapulmonary tuberculosis (TB).<br></p><p>“It is a huge honour," says Chegou, who runs one of five independent research laboratories at SU-IRG. “We are passionate about the kind of research we are doing. All we want to do is contribute to developing tools for the control of TB, if we can, and also to train students and publish data."</p><p>He adds: “Awards are not really at the top of your mind, but once you do receive an award like the Royal Society Africa Prize, it feels very good. It sends out a message that somebody out there sees what you are doing, and that they value what you are doing."<br></p><p>Chegou's work certainly deserves to be acknowledged. He has been engaged in research on the immunology of tuberculosis since he embarked on his MSc degree at Stellenbosch University in 2006, which was converted into a PhD.<br></p><p>“Almost all my work is geared towards developing some kind of prototype test for TB," he says. “Some projects are aimed at discovering biomarkers or evaluating biomarkers so they can be put into tools and used to diagnose TB or to monitor the response to TB treatment."<br></p><p>Chegou's research proposal to the Royal Society intends to take this further and plans to focus on biomarkers to diagnose TB meningitis in children. “It's one of the most difficult types of TB to diagnose," he explains.</p><p>“To diagnose it, you really need advanced tools and expensive equipment, which is why children are mostly referred to a tertiary hospital. But, most of the time, they will never be normal again by the time the disease is diagnosed. <br></p><p>“The question is: Can we diagnose TB meningitis easier, using the biomarkers that we have been working with? What we want to do with the award is to continue improving on the tests that we are trying to develop for earlier diagnosis of that disease in children.<br></p><p>“Then the child doesn't have to come to hospital up to six times before the disease is diagnosed. Then you may avoid some of the neurological problems that children develop because of advanced disease caused by diagnostic delay – not because there is no treatment."<br></p><p>Chegou, who is originally from Cameroon and trained as a medical laboratory scientist at the University of Buea, made his mark quite early in his career. He received an award from the South African Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology as the best Honours student in South Africa in the 2005 academic year.</p><p>In 2015, he received the Stellenbosch University Rector's Award for General Performance. He also won the Young Researcher Award at the UNESCO-Merck Africa Research Summit that same year and received the Silver Scientific Achievement Award from the South African Medical Research Council in 2019.</p><p>Yet there is no doubt that the Royal Society Africa Prize is a singular honour. Founded in the 1660s, the Royal Society is the oldest scientific academy in continuous existence and boasts Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking among its elected Fellows.<br></p><p>“I am extremely grateful for the recognition of our work by the Royal Society," says Chegou. He hopes the award will create more awareness of their work, and perhaps lead to new research collaborations and access to other funding opportunities.</p><p>Sir Adrian Smith, President of the Royal Society, applauds the work of all those it will honour this year: “On behalf of the Royal Society, I offer my congratulations to the outstanding researchers, individuals and teams whose contributions to our collective scientific endeavour have helped further our understanding of the world around us.<br></p><p>“Science has always been a team game, and I'm proud to see such a wide array of skills and specialisms reflected in this year's medals and awards. I am proud that we can celebrate outstanding scientific contributions in all their forms."<br></p><p>​</p><div class="ms-rtestate-read ms-rte-embedcode ms-rte-embedil ms-rtestate-notify"><iframe width="560" height="315" src="" title="YouTube video player" frameborder="0"></iframe> </div><p><br><br></p>
Malope claims spot in Mail & Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans list claims spot in Mail & Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans listFMHS Marketing & Communications / FGGW Bemarking & Kommunikasie – Birgit Ottermann<p>​Stellenbosch University (SU) genetic counsellor and lecturer Malebo Malope has been named as one of the Mail & Guardian's 200 Young South Africans for 2022. This prestigious list celebrates exemplary young individuals committed to creating an inclusive, equal and sustainable future for all.<br></p><p>The 30-year-old Malope, who is currently working in the Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics at SU's Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences', says she was in complete shock and disbelief when she found out that she had made the 2022 cohort.</p><p>“I could not attend the event in Johannesburg and was following the livestream, but there were technical difficulties and I could not continue watching. When I saw others posting their profile screenshots on social media, I checked the website and was really surprised to see that I had made the list. I even closed the webpage and loaded it again to make sure!"</p><p>According to Malope, this acknowledgment has been a great reminder of how far she had come. “We often forget to look back and see the work that we have put in because we are distracted about the future and doing more. This award has made me reflect on my journey thus far, and also serves as a reminder of what I would still like to accomplish going forward."</p><p>Malope made history in 2019 when she became South Africa's first black genetic counsellor. She had no idea, though, that this career path even existed when she commenced her university studies. </p><p>“At the end of matric I did not make it into the programmes that I was interested in, and even then, I was not too sure what I wanted to do. I ended up submitting a late application to the University of Limpopo for a BSc Medical Sciences and was accepted. I have enjoyed biology since high school and found the genetics part of it quite interesting. However, I did not know about genetic counselling then," she recalls.</p><p>It was only during her final year (honours), when she majored in Human Genetics, that Malope learned about genetic counselling from her then supervisor, Associate Professor Kathrine Scholtz. “I just knew it was for me. It perfectly fit my love for genetics, working with patients, and counselling." </p><p>She has since obtained an MSc (Med) Genetic Counselling from the University of Cape Town, and is currently busy with her PhD.</p><p>Malope explains that a genetic counsellor is a healthcare professional who has specialised training in both medical genetics and counselling. “We help clients understand and adapt to the medical, psychosocial, and familial implications of a disease. The medical aspects involve discussing the condition, the underlying genetic cause, available options and recurrence risks. Often, genetic conditions are inherited and can be passed onto future generations and therefore we discuss the familial implications and identifying at-risk family members who may benefit from genetic counselling."</p><p>This also includes the psychosocial aspect as clients often experience shock, grief, stress and other emotions. “Genetic counselling fosters client autonomy," Malope continues. “We facilitate their decision-making process by assisting them to make a decision that is well-informed and aligned with their personal beliefs and world views."</p><p>Malope started working at Stellenbosch University in May 2020, just as the Covid-19 pandemic began. “I am responsible for coordinating the teaching activities within the Medical Genetics and Genetic Counselling unit of the Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics. I also have clinical duties in Tygerberg Hospital where I provide genetic counselling, mainly in the prenatal setting, and participate in the genetic counselling training of interns and students. I truly enjoy both the patient interaction and teaching aspects of my job."</p><p>Malope also created an Instagram account (<a href="">@genetic_counselling_with_m</a>) to raise awareness of the field of genetic counselling, genetic conditions, basic concepts of genetics, patient experiences and relevant research within the field.</p><p>Asked what advice Malope has for young people, she says: “Discover your passion and your purpose and work hard at that. Sometimes your passion won't align with your purpose, and that is okay. You can fulfil them both, separately. Importantly, believe in yourself – you are capable of much more than you believe or can ever dream of."<br></p><p><br></p><p><em>Photo credit: Mail & Guardian</em>​<br></p>
SAMRC Early Investigators Award benefits patients and genomic research in Africa Early Investigators Award benefits patients and genomic research in AfricaFMHS Marketing & Communications / FGGW Bemarking & Kommunikasie – Susan Erasmus<p>​Professor Shahida Moosa, a senior geneticist at Stellenbosch University's (SU) Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, is a recipient of the South African Medical Research Council's (SAMRC) Early Investigators Award.<br></p><p>Moosa is an internationally trained clinician-scientist and a senior medical geneticist at Tygerberg Hospital. She combines her knowledge and skills of clinical genomics, bioinformatics, molecular biology and molecular genomics, and leads the Rare Disease Genomics in South Africa research group.<br></p><p>After completing her specialist training at Wits University, she obtained her PhD at the University of Cologne, Germany (summa cum laude), followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children's Hospital. She is passionate about bringing genomics to Africa and using these technologies to benefit African patients with rare diseases, especially those who are still undiagnosed. <br></p><p>In 2021, Moosa established sub-Saharan Africa's first Undiagnosed Disease Programme (UDP). The UDP is transforming patient lives, and provides unique opportunities for capacity building and training for the next generation of genomics experts in southern Africa. <br></p><p>She is currently an associate professor in medical genetics, in the FMHS' Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics, and a senior specialist medical geneticist at Tygerberg Hospital.<br></p><p><strong>Award will assist research</strong></p><p>The Rare Disease Genomics in South Africa research group uses the latest in genomic technology to find diagnoses for individuals and families with undiagnosed rare diseases. The award will support these activities, specifically by providing funding for the sequencing, which will be done by Africans, for Africans, and on African soil.<br></p><p>The award is for the amount of R500 000 per year for three years. This is the first large national grant she has been awarded since she established this research group. The group has applied for numerous grants, only to be told that “genomics is not a priority for Africa". This funding will allow the group to demonstrate just what a positive and transformative impact genomics can have for African people with rare diseases.<br></p><p>"I am very humbled and pleased that the SAMRC has chosen me for this programme. The funding will benefit people with rare diseases and enable critical capacity building for the wonderful group of young women who make up this research group," says professor Moosa. <br></p><p>"The award also allows for upskilling and networking beyond the division and the university, which is crucial for the introduction of clinical genomics to southern Africa."<br></p><p> <br></p><p><em>Caption: Professor Shahida Moosa</em></p><p><em>Photo credit: Damien Schumann</em></p>
PredictTB provides a wealth of data enhancing our understanding of TB treatment provides a wealth of data enhancing our understanding of TB treatmentFMHS Marketing & Communications / FGGW Bemarking & Kommunikasie<p style="text-align:left;">​​Aiming to advance tuberculosis (TB) treatment standards from the current practice of “one-size-fits-all" to precision-guided individualised therapy, the PredictTB research team led by Prof Gerhard Walzl (Stellenbosch University in South Africa) and Prof Clifton Barry III (US National Institutes of Health) set out in 2017 to investigate a set of criteria enabling improved treatment predictability and identification of patients eligible for treatment shortening.  <br></p><p style="text-align:left;">While the current TB standard therapy lasts six months, up to 80% of all TB patients are cured after four months. However, scientists do not know beforehand which patients belong to that group. Hence, gaining a better understanding of individual TB treatment response allowing for more personalised therapies and potentially shortened treatment duration is a critical step towards reducing drug resistance and disease burden in developing countries. </p><p style="text-align:left;"><strong>Extensive data generation paving the way for future relapse-specific TB biomarker discovery</strong></p><p style="text-align:left;">In the past 5 ½ years the PredictTB group, consisting of experts from Africa, Asia, Europe, and the United States, tested novel, patient-specific radiographic and microbiological biomarkers for early treatment stopping in a large proof-of-concept study in South Africa and China with close to 700 patients. Looking at an innovative combination of positron emission tomography (PET) and computed tomography (CT) scans paired with rapid molecular diagnostic tests, PredictTB has generated a wealth of clinical, imaging, and microbiological data. </p><p style="text-align:left;">“Although the early stopping criteria were shown not to be effective in achieving a safe reduction period of standard TB treatment from six to four months, the PredictTB study provides a wealth of information on PET/CT imaging and it is one of the largest studies ever conducted with PET/CTs on TB treatment with such a long follow-up and well-defined clinical outcomes," summarises Walzl. He continues: “These imaging parameters may help us in the future to fine-tune and optimise early stopping criteria. Plus, this data will also contribute to gaining a better understanding of the factors that lead to failed or curative treatment strategies."</p><p style="text-align:left;">In addition, the study provides a lot of well-characterised patient samples. Together with available samples from other relapse studies, these samples will pave the way for large-scale, relapse-specific biomarker discovery experiments including gene expression, proteomics, and metabolomics measures. These future studies will help design the next generation of candidate biomarkers to be used in clinical trials aiming to streamline the evaluation of new drugs and will also contribute to improved treatment shortening approaches in the future. </p><p style="text-align:left;">The collected PredictTB datasets and samples will be made accessible to the wider research community and external investigators upon request (see further information on the <a href="">PredictTB website</a>) and after secondary aims of the study have been addressed by the consortium. </p><p style="text-align:left;">Alongside the scientific work plan, PredictTB also engaged in a variety of capacity building and training activities to support knowledge-sharing and create perspectives for emerging African scientists. For instance, these activities included a series of workshops with more than 200 delegates over the past five years, the training of PhD students, the establishment of a mentorship program and personal development plans. In addition, the group launched the PredictTB Learning Board, a tailor-made online platform containing curated material for career and skill development that can be used by mentors and mentees in the PredictTB mentoring scheme and other consortium members involved in capacity building. <br></p><p style="text-align:left;"><em>For further information visit: </em><a href=""><em></em></a><em>.</em></p><p style="text-align:left;"><em><br></em></p><p style="text-align:left;"><strong><em>Funding Acknowledgement</em></strong></p><em>The PredictTB project received over 20 million EUR funding from the EDCTP, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation through the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, the National Institutes of Health, Grand Challenges China, the NIH's International Collaborations in Infectious Disease Research (ICIDR) Program in collaboration with the Consortium for TB Biomarkers and the Regional Prospective Observational Research in Tuberculosis in the Republic of South Africa (RePORT South Africa).</em><div><i><br></i><em></em><div><i><br></i></div><div><i>Photo caption: Prof Gerhard Walzl<br></i><em></em><p style="text-align:left;">​<br></p></div></div>
SU walks away with 3 awards at prestigious ‘Science Oscars’ walks away with 3 awards at prestigious ‘Science Oscars’Corporate Communication & Marketing / Korporatiewe Kommunikasie & Bemarking [Alec Basson]<p>​​Stellenbosch University (SU) bagged three prizes at the annual <a href=""><strong class="ms-rteThemeForeColor-5-0">National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)/ South32Awards</strong></a> held recently. Two individual researchers, Prof Guy Midgley and Dr Wynand Goosen, were honoured with the Green Economy Award and the TW Kambule-NSTF Award for Emerging Researchers respectively, while SU was part of the <a href=""><strong class="ms-rteThemeForeColor-5-0">Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa</strong></a> (NGS-SA) that won the Data for Research Award. The principal investigator and lead of the NGS-SA, Prof Tulio de Oliveira from the School for Data Science and Computational Thinking and the Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation, represented SU at the event.</p><p>The prestigious NSTF/South32 Awards are known as South Africa's “Science Oscars" and recognise, celebrate and reward the outstanding contributions of individuals, teams and organisations to science, engineering and technology in South Africa.<br></p><p>Prof Guy Midgley, interim director of the School for Climate Studies and a professor in global change biology in the Department of Botany and Zoology, received the Green Economy Award for his contributions over two decades to the understanding of risks of climate change to endemic biodiversity and ecosystems nationally and globally, to development of response options, and public communication of these issues. His work has been important in adding urgency to the adoption of appropriate mitigation targets over a period of two decades, marshalling evidence and presenting it in two major policy fora, the United Nations (UN) Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. Midgley's inclusion on the <a href="/english/Lists/news/DispForm.aspx?ID=8169"><strong class="ms-rteThemeForeColor-5-0">Reuters Hot List of the top 1 000 most influential climate change scientists</strong></a> in the world bears witness to the significance and impact of his ground-breaking research.</p><p>Midgley said he was delighted to receive this award. “I am convinced that unlocking the green economy is one of the most vital steps that modern societies can take to ensure a safe and equitable future for all. We have much to learn about how to transition to this new kind of economy, and not much time to do so. I hope to continue to contribute positively to this effort."<br></p><p>Dr Wynand Goosen, a Wellcome Trust lecturer within the Animal Tuberculosis (TB) Research Group in the Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics, won the TW Kambule-NSTF Award in the Emerging Researcher Category for the work he's been doing to identify TB from various animals to eradicate zoonotic TB, which remains a leading global health problem. He leads numerous projects to develop tests that can measures unique blood immunological markers, detect the presence of TB DNA in dirty respiratory samples and improve TB sequencing directly from such samples. Goosen also identified a novel blood marker associated with early infection, detected TB DNA in respiratory samples with high sensitivity, and successfully sequenced TB amidst various inhibitors. He contributed significantly to eradicating zoonotic TB in rural communities in South Africa, as well as towards drafting a TB management policy for endangered wildlife species in the country. <br></p><p>Goosen said it was “truly is a massive honour to accept this award on behalf of the Animal Tuberculosis Research Group. It is the product of many years of hard work performed by the group". <br></p><p>He added that “to address the global public health burden of zoonotic TB, we need to improve scientific evidence, reduce transmission at the animal-human transmission interface and strengthen intersectoral and collaborative approaches. During the recent pandemic, we have lived through a real-life example as to why it is important to address pathogens that can infect both humans and animals".<br></p><p>Goosen said the award shows the broader scientific community that the NSTF and South32 clearly understand the importance of supporting this type of research, and that this is very good news from a human public health perspective for South Africa.<br></p><ul><li><strong>Photo</strong>: Prof Guy Midgley, Dr Wynand Goosen and Prof Tulio de Oliviera.​</li></ul><p>​<br></p>
Rare disease research group results are ‘beyond expectations’ disease research group results are ‘beyond expectations’FMHS Marketing & Communications / FGGW Bemarking & Kommunikasie – Sue Segar<p>​​A new research article details the transformative effect that a programme by the Rare Disease Genomics in South Africa (RDGSA) research group has had on the lives of many people who have had to live with undiagnosed diseases for years.<br></p><p>The Undiagnosed Disease Programme (UDP) was established by the RDGSA to provide correct diagnoses to patients with rare diseases, and the group has recently published the results of their first year of operation in the <em>American Journal of Medical Genetics</em>. The RDGSA is situated within the Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics at Stellenbosch University's Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS).</p><p>The UDP is the first of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa and hopes to end the often soul-destroying “diagnostic odysseys" of undiagnosed patients with rare diseases. They use whole exome sequencing and whole genome sequencing to diagnose rare diseases.<br></p><p>In its first year, 100 patients took part in the UDP, and a diagnosis was reached in 51 of them.<br></p><p>“This represents a diagnostic yield of 51 percent. This is really encouraging, especially considering that this is the first programme of its kind in this region," said Professor Shahida Moosa, Associate Professor of Medical Genetics and head of the RDGSA group. “We have made such great strides in such a short time.<br></p><p>“These results show that the programme has already been transformative and potentially life changing as most patients have lived for years not knowing what disease they had. Most of them have had several rounds of tests, none of which delivered a diagnosis until we were able to use the latest in genomic technology, namely exome sequencing," she said.<br></p><p>Moosa said she was particularly thrilled that the paper is out in the <em>American Journal of Medical Genetics</em>.</p><p>“Also known as the 'blue journal', it is the leading journal for medical geneticists around the globe and it offers the paper open access to anyone working in the field," she said.<br></p><p>“It means that our peers who have had access for longer than we have to exome sequencing can see that the technology works just as well in our under-represented populations and that we too can show success employing this technology in our hospitals."<br></p><p>The RDGSA recruits patients and their families who are searching for diagnoses “to see if they would be good candidates for an exome sequencing test".<br></p><p>“We have offered it to several hundred individuals. The paper describes the success we have had in the first 100. In other countries where they have looked at similar cohorts, they have had diagnostic yields of between 30 and 35 percent.<br></p><p>“We have added a copy number variant analysis which brought us up to a 51 percent diagnostic yield. The families are so surprised and happy about this as they now have a name for the condition which their child has or which is running in the family for which they have not previously had a name," Moosa said. For some patients, they are the first in Africa to be diagnosed with their particular condition. She said the outcome of the work on the UDP has yielded rewards “way beyond my expectations".<br></p><p>“I really thought we would have trouble looking at and analysing the data as our patients come from populations which are under-represented and understudied. The results have however shown that we have the skills and ability to end the diagnostic odyssey in a way that is beneficial and gratifying for us."<br></p><p>Moosa said the programme is currently focusing on diagnosing paediatric patients in order to provide medical treatment and management at the most impactful time. “With time, we hope to include more adult patients. It is never too later to receive a diagnosis," she said.<br></p><p>“As the clinician and researcher who looks after the patients, I have watched how they have started off coming to me in the clinic with a big question mark on their faces; then how they have undergone testing in the lab and then how they have returned to the clinic to receive their diagnoses. For the patients, as well as their families, it has been extremely gratifying. And for me and my research group, even more so!"<br></p><p>Commenting on the fact that this is the first paper coming out of sub-Saharan Africa describing the clinical utility of exome sequencing in African patients, Moosa said: “When we apply for grants, people say things like Africa has other priorities like infectious diseases. I want to remind them that Africa also has people and families with rare diseases. Now we have the teams and the technology to diagnose people with rare diseases. We not only do it properly, but we also do it very well. We are particularly fortunate to be able to offer African patients access to this technology, as they are understudied and under-represented in genomics worldwide. This programme is filling a gap we previously could not address."<br></p><p>Moosa said that the programme will soon be able to include many more patients. “A grant from the South African Medical Research Council will help us to do more sequencing for more families still waiting for a diagnosis. Recruitment is skyrocketing," she said.<br></p><p>​<br></p><p><em>Caption: Prof Shahida Moosa and the rest of the Rare Disease Genomics in South Africa (RDGSA) research group.</em><br></p>
FMHS researchers bolstered by SAMRC awards researchers bolstered by SAMRC awardsFMHS Marketing & Communication / FGGW Bemarking & Kommunikasie – Susan Erasmus<p>​​Three researchers at Stellenbosch University's (SU) Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS) have received substantial awards from the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), enabling two of them to fast-track the research needed to complete their PhDs, and for the third to expand her research and become a primary supervisor for two PhDs in her field.<br></p><p>Ms Sarah Pheeha and Dr Jane Shaw both received the Bongani Mayosi National Health Scholars Programme Award, which will enable them to focus on the research they need to do for their doctorates. Dr Jacqueline Womersley received an SAMRC Early Career Research Award, which allows her to focus on her ongoing research project in the field of biological psychiatry.<br></p><p><strong>Ms Sara Pheeha</strong></p><p>Pheeha has a BSc and an MSc in Medical Sciences (Chemical Pathology) and is registered for a PhD at the FHMS. She currently also serves as a Medical Scientist at the National Health Laboratory Health Services at the Dr George Mukhari Academic Hospital in Ga-Rankuwa (north-west of Pretoria), where she runs the HPCSA-accredited intern training programme. She is teaching, providing services to the public, and also conducting research for her PhD in Epidemiology.</p><p>Her doctoral research is on the topic of gut microbiota profiles in people with type 2 diabetes and healthy individuals without diabetes. This research is designed to better understand the role that the gut microbiota plays in type 2 diabetes, and how it relates to the immune system, particularly, antibody-mediated immunity.</p><p>Her research is particularly relevant in South Africa, where it is estimated that approximately 4.5 million people have diabetes, many of whom are undiagnosed.<br></p><p>The award she received from the Bongani Mayosi National Health Scholarship Programme is valid from 1 April 2022 to 31 March 2023.</p><p>“I am very pleased to have received such an award, because it will definitely help me to fast-track my PhD, and therefore help me to achieve my biggest career goal thus far," says Pheeha.<br></p><p><strong>Dr Jane Shaw</strong></p><p>Shaw is a Specialist Physician and Pulmonologist with an interest in tuberculosis (TB) and other infectious diseases of the lung and pleura.</p><p>In 2008 she completed her MBChB with the University of Cape Town (UCT) and spent her two years of internship and one year of community service at the Paarl Provincial Hospital, just outside Cape Town. <br></p><p>She completed her specialist training in pulmonology with SU in 2018, and then worked as an Internal Medicine consultant and Pulmonology consultant in the Department of Medicine at the FMHS and Tygerberg Academic Hospital. <br></p><p>In 2020 she transitioned to the role of study clinician in the FMHS' Immunology Research Group, where she takes part in research into the host immune response to TB as well as TB treatment trials. She also has an active interest in diseases of the pleura, other granulomatous diseases of the respiratory system, and thoracic ultrasound. <br></p><p>As an early-career researcher, she has published over 30 articles in peer-reviewed journals, and has authored four book chapters. <br></p><p>She is currently doing a PhD in Molecular Biology at SU and sees patients in both the private and public sector. <br></p><p>From April 2020 to April 2022 she was a Study Clinician and Pulmonologist in the Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics at the FMHS, where she performed procedures, oversaw the BMRI Research Bronchoscopy Theatre, supervised theatre staff, trained staff and students, and participated in various research studies.<br></p><p>Receiving the Bongani Mayosi National Health Scholars Programme has enabled her to focus 90 percent of her time on her PhD.<br></p><p>Her PhD research aims to explore the impact of recent SARS-CoV-2 infection on the host immune response to <em>Mycobacterium tuberculosis</em>, which she hopes will contribute to the better understanding of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the pre-existing TB pandemic.</p><p>“This award will allow me to focus on achieving the research aims of my PhD project, without having to also relinquish my ability to support my family," says Shaw.<br></p><p><strong>Dr Jacqueline Womersley </strong></p><p>Womersley is a senior research scientist in the Department of Psychiatry at SU and a member of the Medical Research Council/SU Genomics of Brain Disorders Extra-Mural Unit. She was awarded an SAMRC Early Career Research Award. </p><p>She has an extensive background in basic neuroscience research. She obtained her PhD in physiology from UCT and then completed postdoctoral fellowships in cellular and molecular pharmacology with the Medical University of South Carolina (USA) and psychiatric genetics at SU.</p><p>She has a Y1-rating from the South African National Research Foundation. Her research to date has focused on the biological mechanisms underlying the risk of developing psychiatric disorders, with a particular focus on the influence of gene-environment interactions on behaviour and mental health.<br></p><p>She is a member of the neuropsychiatric genetics research group and works with staff and postgraduate students on projects spanning childhood trauma, HIV, post-traumatic stress disorder, foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, anxiety, depression, and substance use.<br></p><p>The SAMRC Early Investigators Programme was awarded for the project, “Epigenetic and biological aging profiles of neuropsychological function in South African women with HIV".<br></p><p>"This award will allow me to leverage the results of an ongoing study, conducted in the Department of Psychiatry, on biological endophenotypes of HIV in South African women. The rich multi-level dataset will include neuropsychological, clinical, genomic and neuroimaging measures to provide detailed mechanistic insight into cognitive decline and depression, two common comorbidities of HIV infection," explains Womersley.<br></p><p>She sees this funding as an important step in establishing herself as an independent researcher in the field of biological psychiatry. The funding will allow her to be primary supervisor for two PhD projects and will also enable her to expand on a planned research project in collaboration with Dr Scott Letendre, a University of California San Diego Centre for AIDS Research infectious disease expert, who examines the impact of HIV on brain health.</p><p>"I have had a passion for neuroscience ever since I was introduced to it as an undergraduate and am exceptionally grateful that this award will allow me continue research in this fascinating field, and also to share this opportunity and my skills with postgraduate students who will work on the project," she concludes.<br></p><p>​<br></p><p><em>Caption: </em><em>Dr Jane Shaw, Ms Sara Pheeha and Dr Jacqueline Womersley.</em><br><br></p>
The gut microbiome helps to keep us in tip-top shape gut microbiome helps to keep us in tip-top shape Lauren Martin, Natasha Kitchin & Matsepo Ramaboli<p>​​​World Microbiome Day was celebrated recently (27 June). In an opinion piece for <em>Health24</em>, Lauren Martin, Natasha Kitchin & Matsepo Ramaboli from the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences write that the human gut microbiome — the microorganisms that live in our intestines — is crucial for our physical well-being.<br></p><ul><li>Read the article below or click <a href=""><strong class="ms-rteThemeForeColor-5-0">here</strong></a><strong class="ms-rteThemeForeColor-5-0"> </strong>for the piece as published.</li></ul><p><strong>Lauren Martin, Natasha Kitchin & Matsepo Ramaboli</strong><strong>*</strong><strong> </strong></p><p style="text-align:justify;"><a href=""><strong class="ms-rteThemeForeColor-5-0">World Microbiome Day</strong></a> was celebrated on the 27<sup>th</sup> of June in recognition of the often-overlooked contributions that our resident microbes make to our health as well as the role that microorganisms play in maintaining healthy global ecosystems. It is, therefore, fitting that the theme for 2022 was “Celebration of The Microbial World". </p><p style="text-align:justify;">Microscopic organisms, such as bacteria, fungi, viruses, and archaea, amongst others, are everywhere. They live in and on water, soil, food, plants, animals, and humans. In fact, for every human cell, there are approximately 1.3 bacterial cells. These microorganisms cover our entire body, including our skin, eyes, genitalia, mouth and our gut. Within each of these habitats, communities of microbes called “<a href=""><strong class="ms-rteThemeForeColor-5-0">microbiomes</strong></a>" are formed. Some bacteria are simply along for the ride, while others – the symbiotic bacteria – offer a mutually beneficial relationship. These symbiotic bacteria, particularly those present in the gut, play an important role in the development and maintenance of the human body.</p><p style="text-align:justify;">The human <a href=""><strong class="ms-rteThemeForeColor-5-0">gut microbiome</strong></a> — the microorganisms that live in our intestines — is one of the interesting features of our bodies. The gut microbiome plays a crucial role in early childhood-to-adult development and has a direct influence on the immune system, hence its importance in health and disease. It has a high metabolic capacity that exceeds that of the liver, and its genetic information outnumbers that of all the other cells of the human body combined. </p><p style="text-align:justify;">Although frequently debated, most researchers accept that we acquire our first microbiota (micro-organisms in or on the human body) at birth. Delivery mode (vaginal or C-section delivery) greatly influences the gut microbiome of newborns. Babies born vaginally have a gut microbiome that closely resembles their mother's vaginal microbiome, while the gut microbiome of infants delivered by C-section is more similar to their mother's skin microbiome. After birth, the choice of diet (breast milk or formula) influences the bacterial colonisation of the newborn's gut. The gut microbiome of exclusively breast-fed babies is dominated by specialised bacteria<em> </em>which break down the healthy sugars in breast milk. Following the introduction to solid food, the infant gut microbiome gradually becomes more complex — a transition that can take up to three years.</p><p style="text-align:justify;">In adults, the complexity of the gut microbiome peaks with the formation of a robust core microbiome. The microbiome helps protect us from infection, helps us digest food and medicine, and produces vitamins and hormones that are essential for our health. While the gut microbiome can buffer some changes, changes in diet, bacterial infection, antibiotic use, and stress can greatly affect it. <br></p><p style="text-align:justify;">In recent years, changes in the gut microbiome have been increasingly recognised for their contribution to disease susceptibility. The different bacteria that make up the gut microbiome work closely together to maintain the health and function of the human body and prevent disease. Disturbance of the composition of the gut microbiome (termed 'dysbiosis') promotes inflammation and disease. <a href=""><strong class="ms-rteThemeForeColor-5-0">Dysbiosis</strong></a><strong class="ms-rteThemeForeColor-5-0"> </strong>occurs because of an unhealthy diet and excessive use of antibiotics, and leads to reduced microbial diversity. In fact, decreased microbial diversity during adulthood has been associated with more than 100 diseases including obesity, type 1 and 2 diabetes, allergic conditions such as asthma, a variety of cancers as well as neuropsychiatric conditions such as depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia. </p><p style="text-align:justify;">The gut microbiome plays a key role in preventing intestinal diseases such as colon cancer and inflammatory bowel disease. The human body cannot digest dietary fibre which is found in whole-grain products, fruit, vegetables, beans, peas and other legumes as well as nuts and seeds. Thankfully the gut microbiome has the capacity to ferment fibre into readily usable short-chain fatty acids including <a href=""><strong class="ms-rteThemeForeColor-5-0">butyrate</strong></a>. Butyrate alters the immune system and protects against the development of colon cancer. A diet low in fibre contributes to dysbiosis and inflammation which, in turn, contributes to the development of certain diseases. When we eat food rich in fats, the liver digests the fat into primary bile acids which are further digested by the gut microbiome into secondary bile acids. One of these secondary bile acids – deoxycholate – promotes colon cancer. </p><p style="text-align:justify;">Recently, the gut and the brain have been found to interact with each other indirectly through what is termed the “<a href=""><strong class="ms-rteThemeForeColor-5-0">microbiota-gut-brain axis</strong></a>". The gut microbiome plays an essential role in brain development. During critical neurodevelopmental periods such as early life, dysbiosis negatively impacts neurodevelopment and can lead to neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders later in life.</p><p style="text-align:justify;">Unlike our DNA, the microbiome is dynamic and can therefore be altered for improved health and well-being. Supplementation of the diet with prebiotics (non-digestible foods that bacteria digest), probiotics (living beneficial bacteria) or synbiotics (a combination of probiotics and prebiotics) can lessen changes in the gut microbiome associated with disease by increasing the abundance of beneficial microbes within the gut, and consequently, good health outcomes. Even in the absence of diagnosed disease, incorporating prebiotics and probiotics into your daily life, through a healthy diet and supplementation, can help feed the beneficial bacteria in your gut and can aid in boosting your immunity.  <br></p><p style="text-align:justify;">As highlighted by American board-certified gastroenterologist and member of <a href=""><strong class="ms-rteThemeForeColor-5-0">ZOE</strong></a>'s Scientific Advisory Board Dr Will Bulsiewicz “... what appears to be the most important thing for human health, isn't even human". No doubt, the gut microbiome is crucial for our physical well-being. We should therefore continue to build microbiome literacy and create more public awareness about the importance of microorganisms in our lives.<br></p><ul><li>Photo by Amanda Mills, USCDCP on <a href=""><strong class="ms-rteThemeForeColor-5-0">Pixnio</strong></a>.<br></li></ul><p style="text-align:justify;"><strong>​*</strong><strong><em>Lauren Martin and Natasha Kitchin are students within</em></strong><strong><em> the </em></strong><strong><em>Neuropsychiatric Genetics Research Group in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS) at Stellenbosch University. Dr Matsepo Ramaboli</em></strong><strong><em> is a </em></strong><strong><em>post-doctoral research fellow at the African Microbiome Institute in the FMHS.</em></strong></p><p style="text-align:justify;"> </p><p style="text-align:justify;"> </p><p style="text-align:justify;"> </p><p>​<br></p>
Pioneering study of TB in rhinos aids Kruger Park’s conservation efforts study of TB in rhinos aids Kruger Park’s conservation effortsFMHS Marketing & Communications / FGGW Bemarking & Kommunikasie – Ilse Bigalke<p>​​​The largest study ever to be conducted on a free-ranging population of rhinoceros, revealed that about one in every seven rhinos in the Kruger National Park (KNP) had evidence that they had been infected with <em>Mycobacterium bovis (M. bovis)</em> – the pathogen that causes bovine tuberculosis (bTB).<br></p><p>The study, conducted by Stellenbosch University's (SU) Animal Tuberculosis Research Group, South African National Parks (SANParks), and the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, USA, tested samples of 437 rhinoceros collected from 2016 to 2020 in KNP. It revealed an estimated prevalence of <em>M. bovis</em> infection of 15,4% in black and white rhino populations in the park.</p><p>While the research results are worrying, the evidence provided by the study is crucial to the effective conservation of the already vulnerable rhino population. Added to this, scientists with the Animal TB Research Group, situated within SU's Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, developed a novel diagnostic test to detect <em>M. bovis</em> in rhinos, which will greatly aid conservation efforts.</p><p><strong>Infected, but asymptomatic</strong></p><p>The researchers emphasise that the presence of infection does not mean that the animals are diseased or dying. Prof Michele Miller, who leads the Animal TB Research Group and is the National Research Foundation (NRF) South African Research Chair in Animal TB, says their research shows that most of the rhinos can contain the infection if they are otherwise healthy.<strong> </strong></p><p>“It can be compared to humans who are infected with Covid-19 or have latent TB but are asymptomatic. The infected rhinos are harbouring the bacteria, but their immune system is keeping it in check. They are not losing weight or coughing, and if you looked at a group of 400 rhinos, you wouldn't be able to pick out those that are infected. They can potentially live for years with infection if it is contained."</p><p>Dr Peter Buss, Veterinary Senior Manager in KNP's Veterinary Wildlife Services, adds that there is no evidence at this point to suggest that TB will have any impact on the rhino population. “The rhinos are being exposed to the organism, they are mounting an immune response, but they are not getting sick and dying from it.<strong> </strong>The same applies to other species.<strong> </strong>For example, we know that we get TB in our lions and that individuals will die of the disease. But if you look at the population level of the disease, lions seem to be doing fine and their numbers have remained fairly static."</p><p>The authors further emphasise that the findings don't really come as a surprise since TB is prevalent in at least 15 other species in KNP, but that their research has significant positive implications for SANParks' rhino conservation and management strategy. </p><p>“While this pathogen may not appear to drastically impact the health of rhinoceros individuals, the research has significant implications for conservation management decisions. For example, tuberculosis testing in KNP rhinoceros that are earmarked for translocation for conservation reasons can increase confidence of minimal risk to other susceptible individuals at their destinations," explains Rebecca Dwyer, lead author of the study and a PhD candidate in the Animal TB research team.  </p><p><strong>Risk factors</strong></p><p>The study, which was published in the prestigious American scientific journal <em>PNAS</em> (<em>Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences</em>) this week, identified proximity to buffalo herds (white rhinos) and sampling year (black rhinos) – which coincided with periods of drought – as risk factors for <em>M. bovis</em> infection. </p><p>A significant cluster of cases was detected near KNP's south-western border, although infection was widely distributed. The identified cluster is close to the KNP border with the surrounding Mpumalanga province, consisting primarily of farmland with livestock herds that have historically been implicated in spill-over of <em>M. bovis</em> to wildlife in KNP, especially to buffaloes. </p><p><strong>Significance</strong></p><p>“With South African rhinos being threatened by poaching, habitat loss and drought, it is key to be able to translocate them to strongholds where they can be kept safe and to preserve their genetic diversity," says Miller. “But TB is a controlled veterinary disease, so once our research group, in partnership with SANParks, found TB in Kruger rhinos in 2016, the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform, and Rural Development (DALRRD) imposed movement restrictions to prevent spreading the infection to other populations." </p><p>These restrictions created a barrier to the movement of rhinos to other national or private reserves and has a significant impact on the conservation of the species, as KNP has historically been an important population source of rhinoceros for other conservation strongholds in South Africa and other African countries. </p><p>The solution was to come up with a test to identify infected animals before they were moved to prevent disease transmission. According to Dr Wynand Goosen, Wellcome International Training Fellow in the Animal TB Research Group, the screening test that was used in their KNP study was validated by the Animal TB Research Group in 2019 and was recently approved by DALRRD for use in KNP rhinos (see info box below).<strong> </strong></p><p>A management strategy involving a quarantine protocol and testing schedule was devised in collaboration with SANParks and has been approved. “Should we now wish to start moving rhinos out of Kruger, we have that option to quarantine them and test them, and then send them out," says Buss.</p><p>Dwyer adds: “The findings of this study are significantly important for wildlife conservation, not just of rhinoceros, but of many other species in this context. It demonstrates that the spread of pathogens in multi-host systems has important consequences for the conservation of different species and of the ecosystem as a whole."   </p><p><strong>The way forward</strong></p><p>Dr Carmel Witte, a quantitative epidemiologist with the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and senior author of the study, emphasises that the eventual population-level health effects of bTB are currently unknown. “Tuberculosis tends to be a disease that manifests over long periods of time and when you compound an infectious disease with stochastic events such as climate change and unprecedented mortality due to poaching of endangered animals, it is cause for concern. </p><p>“Continued surveillance of rhinoceros as well as other animals can help us understand the long-term impact of this disease in wildlife and prevent catastrophic population losses and further disease spread."</p><p>Goosen highlights the importance of the further development of diagnostic tools and of a 'Tuberculosis One Health' approach. “Even though our research is very important from an animal conservation perspective, it is just as important from a human health-risk perspective. To avoid the next pandemic in people, livestock and wildlife will have to be actively monitored for various infectious pathogens with zoonotic potential. This requires appropriate diagnostic tools that are rapid and accurate. To develop these tools research in all susceptible species is of the utmost importance."</p><p> </p><p><strong>ADDITIONAL INFORMATION:</strong></p><p><strong>More about the diagnostic test used in the bTB study</strong></p><ul><li>It was developed based on a blood test used for TB detection in humans. </li><li>It is an improvement on traditional diagnostic methods using culture because it is based on the immune response.</li><li>The entire system is a modified commercial test which ensures standardisation.</li><li>It is simple for in-field use and reproducible.</li></ul><p>The Animal TB Research Group has developed tests that can be used for African wildlife species over many years of research. Improved tests are in demand by veterinarians throughout the world since there are currently limited tests for diagnosing TB in wildlife. To name a few species: African buffaloes, warthogs, African elephants, African lions, cheetahs, leopards, wild dogs, hippos, baboons, and meerkats.</p><p><strong>TB in other KNP species </strong></p><p>According to the researchers, the distribution of <em>M. bovis</em> infection in KNP rhinoceros is similar to that reported for other species in the park. For example, a 1991-'92 survey of buffaloes showed widespread bTB in the central and southern regions of the park, with individual herd prevalence of up to 67%. A later study (2012/'13) showed an overall infection prevalence of 44% in lions in the same areas. Such extensive infection is increasingly observed in species like warthogs, wild dogs and elephants, with cases identified in more than 15 species to date. Taken together, these findings suggest that spill-over of bTB is not a new occurrence and support the need for ongoing bTB surveillance across species to continuously assess disease risk and conservation impact.</p><p><strong>Why rhinos are translocated</strong></p><p>KNP<strong> </strong>has been a source of rhinos for other locations starting new populations or for genetic diversity reasons – a strategy that has been adopted because rhinos were doing so well in the Park until the onset of poaching, explains Miller. “If a disaster affects an isolated population of an endangered species, that species could be lost. To avoid that risk, you don't want all the animals in one location, and they are moved to multiple places. One of those risks is poaching. It is often easier to manage the security of rhinos in smaller reserves than in a huge, complex park. Moving animals to other locations will ensure that there are future breeding populations even if the threat of poaching continues in Kruger."</p><p><strong>Is bTB a threat to humans? </strong></p><p>Although people can become infected with bTB, it usually only happens when they regularly handle infected (uncooked) animal organs or drink unpasteurised milk. Unlike diseases such as Covid-19, people need close prolonged contact to get TB and won't contract it from visiting KNP, stresses Miller.<strong> </strong></p><p>Witte adds that although most humans are not interacting with wild rhinoceros in a way that would put them at risk for acquiring <em>M. bovis</em>, the study highlights the ongoing potential for pathogen spill-over from animals to people (and people to animals!) at the human-domestic animal-wildlife interface.</p><p>According to Goosen TB has similar consequences for humans and a broad range of animal species, yet cases in humans and animals are commonly treated as separate problems.<strong> </strong>A TB One Health approach is therefore warranted<strong> </strong>by improving the surveillance of zoonotic mycobacteria in humans, livestock, wildlife and their environment throughout South Africa using various novel technologies.<strong> </strong></p><p><strong>Ongoing work in KNP</strong></p><p>According to Buss a lot of work still remains to be done on TB, especially the epidemiology, and particularly at a population level. “Although it has been around for maybe 60-70 years in Kruger, it would still be considered a relatively new disease. Because TB manifests itself so slowly, we would imagine that the disease is still expressing itself at a population level, and we still need to reach some sort of equilibrium with the disease – and we just don't know exactly where that is.</p><p>“Although we might not see much happening at the moment, it is very difficult to predict the future. It would really be helpful to have some idea of the potential impact of this disease, particularly in advance, should we be required to manage this. And that's in all animals, not only rhinos."</p><p><strong>Prevalence in other parks and reserves? </strong></p><p>According to Buss, KNP is currently the only national park where TB has been diagnosed in rhinos. “The problem is currently contained to the Kruger, thank goodness. But we would certainly want to keep it that way for other national parks."</p><ul><li><em>Follow this link to read the full article in </em><em>PNAS</em><em>: </em><a href=""></a> <br></li></ul><p>​<br></p><p><em><span style="font-size:11pt;line-height:107%;font-family:calibri, sans-serif;">Photo caption: Prof Michele Miller (second from right) collects blood samples from a white rhino in the Kruger National Park. </span></em><br></p>
SU researchers compete for National Science Awards researchers compete for National Science AwardsCorporate Communication & Marketing / Korporatiewe Kommunikasie & Bemarking [Alec Basson]<p>​​​Five eminent researchers from Stellenbosch University will represent the institution at the annual <a href=""><strong class="ms-rteThemeForeColor-5-0">National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)/South32Awards</strong></a>. They will be competing as finalists for the 2021/2022 NSTF/South32 Awards at South Africa's “Science Oscars" on Thursday 21 July 2022.</p><p>The NSTF Awards Gala Event will take place as a hybrid event to be broadcast from two cities – Johannesburg and Cape Town. This means the usual Gala Dinner will be reintroduced with the addition of a celebration in Cape Town and broadcasting from both cities to an online audience via the NSTF YouTube channel. The patron of the Awards, the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande, has been invited to preside over the presentation of the awards.</p><p>Regarded as the most sought-after national accolades of their kind in the country, the NSTF/South32 Awards recognise, celebrate and reward the outstanding contributions of individuals, teams and organisations to science, engineering and technology (SET) in the country. Among the competitors are experienced scientists, engineers, innovators, science communicators, engineering capacity builders, organisational managers and leaders, as well as data and research managers.</p><p>The SU finalists (with department or environment) and the categories in which they will compete are as follows:</p><p><strong><em>Lifetime award</em></strong></p><ul><li>Profs Gerhard Walzl (Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics, Department of Biomedical Sciences) & Guy Midgley (Department of Botany and Zoology/School for Climate Studies). Midgley is also a finalist in the <strong><em>Green Economy Award</em></strong> category.</li></ul><p><strong><em>Communication Award</em></strong></p><ul><li>Prof Nox Makunga (Department of Botany and Zoology)</li></ul><p><strong><em>TW Kambule-NSTF Award: Emerging Researcher</em></strong></p><ul><li>Dr Wynand Goosen (Centre of Excellence for Biomedical TB Research, Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics, Department of Biomedical Sciences)</li></ul><p><strong><em>Engineering Research Capacity Development and Special Annual Theme Awards</em></strong></p><ul><li>Prof Oluwole Makinde (Department of Mathematics, Faculty of Military Science)</li></ul><p><strong>Photo</strong>: Profs Gerhard Walzl, Oluwole Makinde, Guy Midgley, Nox Makunga, and Dr Wynand Goosen.<br></p><p>​<br></p>