Award encourages African academics to lead

27 Aug 2019 - 14:15

The recent announcement of the Crick African Network’s African Career Accelerator (CAN ACA) Fellowships has named two University of Cape Town (UCT) recipients, Doctors Ursula Rohlwink and Suraj Parihar.

The two have been selected as part of a cohort of seven awardees who, with the help of these awards, are expected to develop into research group leaders on the continent. They follow in the shoes of UCT postdoctoral research scientists Dr Kate Webb who was one of the winners in the second round earlier this year, and Mandy Mason who was one of a handful of researchers who were awarded the fellowship in the first round late last year.

“I’m delighted. This fellowship is a tremendous opportunity to enrich my research experience and grow my data for future grant applications. I look forward to immersing myself in an environment as dynamic as the Crick. I am excited about living in London for six months,” says Rohlwink of the Division of Neurosurgery and the UCT Neuroscience Institute. She adds that the first people she told were her mother and sister, who were clearly overjoyed. Although whether that was aimed at the accolade or the chance that they will visit her in London during her six-month stay could be up for debate.

In addition to the allocated time in the UK, the fellows will also work at one of five African partner institutions: the MRC/UVRI and LSHTM Uganda Research Unit; MRC Unit The Gambia at LSHTM (representing the West African Global Health Alliance); Stellenbosch University; UCT; and the West African Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens at the University of Ghana.

Rohlwink is based at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital. Her work focuses on understanding the mechanisms underlying injury to the brain due to trauma or tuberculosis (TB) infection – whether at a physiological level (like the relationship between pressure, blood flow, and oxygenation in the brain), or a cellular level (such as which genes are switched on or off as a result of infection).

“My project for the CAN fellowship will build on this work by examining changes in brain metabolism and electrical activity as a result of tuberculous meningitis (TBM),” she says.

Parihar, is a contributing investigator (NRF Y2-rated) in CIDRI-Africa, the Wellcome Centre for Infectious Disease Research in Africa. The centre is affiliated with UCT’s Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine (IDM). Parihar, an Associate Member of the IDM, represents both entities.

He says: “The research environment at the IDM is vibrant, diverse, and extremely collaborative. The infrastructure, research facilities and support from the established scientists and mentors are immense. Moreover, leading researchers (basic and clinical sciences) from the best institutions around the world are invited throughout the year for seminars, which provides opportunities to interact and establish collaborations.”

Speaking to his work he says it’s about understanding the host IFITM1 gene function in TB, and more broadly in infectious diseases like Listeria: “We identified the gene some years ago. When I wrote the ACA application, we already had some idea on how it might influence TB on a cellular level. By deleting the gene from mice, we aim to get a better understanding on its function at the whole organism level during TB infection. We then translate the results in human macrophages. In general IFITM1 helps against various viral infections. The importance of this gene in bacterial diseases makes it interesting to investigate further.”

Parihar is honoured for the opportunity to work at the Crick, “We aim to appreciate the dynamics of IFITM1 with TB bacteria in macrophages using powerful microscopes.” This will better help him to utilise a specialised imaging equipment platform (FACS ARIA Fusion, Elyra Super-resolution and Image Express confocal systems) within the bio-safety level III laboratory at the IDM, facilities for which he serves as Academic Lead. He adds, “My research goal is to improve current strategies against TB by exploiting Host-Directed Therapies (HDT), which have a strong potential to be used as an adjunct to antibiotics.”

Each recipient is allocated £145 000 over the two-year period to cover salaries, some necessary equipment, and research costs. Working with Crick means both Rohlwink and Parihar will be picking up new techniques that can influence their work, as well as building long-term networks that may result in future partnerships. This has meant exposure to some renowned scientists in the field: “I have the chance to engage them on their thoughts, and what I aim to investigate,” says Parihar. While Rohlwink says that with the award officially beginning in 2020, it’s now time to plan the logistics of “how it will play out on a practical level.”

When it comes to challenges researchers face on the continent Rohlwink points directly at funding – whether one is referring to funding for research costs or salary support. “There is little job security in academia, this is felt more keenly in Africa where tenured positions are few and soft funding is limited. But we have advantages on our side too – we see large numbers of patients with both infectious and lifestyle diseases, and in South Africa, we have a relatively strong research infrastructure and superb scientific mentorship. Our access to rich clinical data and samples puts us in a position where we can truly do ground-breaking research if we have the financial support. The CAN fellowships are a superb example of that kind of support.”

Parihar highlights a different dimension of the obstacles saying that although there is a lot of infrastructure in the country, access to cutting-edge technology is a challenge on the continent: “There’s a growing a recognition that the same tools can answer various research questions. Equipment isn’t designed to be one-dimensional. And it’s important to get training from the best so you can utilise the technology to its full potential. This way you can come back and establish your own niche and pass the research onto the students as well as other researchers.” The fellowship addresses this gap by directing funding towards early-career researchers and providing support to help establish them as emerging leaders in their research fields. 

Looking forward, both researchers are mindful of the importance of impact – on their work addressing critical medical needs and improving health outcomes through Translational Research. “Translation is always a priority of the work I start. We try to use drugs that are already on the market. Find the gene. Look at what you can inhibit or activate with what’s already available,” says Parihar.

Rohlwink adds, “Trauma is the leading cause of death in South African youth, largely due to brain trauma. TBM is a major cause of death and severe disability. Brain injury is common across these two burdens of disease. The impact to the patient, their families, communities, and the country at large is immense – especially when children are affected. If we can understand the injured brain better, and in doing so find ways to ameliorate the consequences of neuro-trauma and neuro-infection, we can have a significantly positive impact on society.” She concludes, “I hope my work on brain injury in children will contribute to that.”

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