29 AUGUST 2019 | STORY NOBHONGO GXOLO. PHOTOS SUPPLIED. Read time 8 min.
The Crick African Network (CAN), a programme of the Francis Crick Institute in the United Kingdom and five partner institutes in Africa, has named the recipients of seven new African Career Accelerator (ACA) awards, with two University of Cape Town (UCT) scientists included among the fellows. They are doctors Ursula Rohlwink and Suraj Parihar.
The Crick, as it is affectionately known, is dedicated to understanding the fundamental biology underlying health and disease. The CAN aims to promote economic development and healthcare in partner countries by sharing the Crick Institute’s extensive experience researching diseases, including HIV, tuberculosis and malaria.
This UK–Africa collaboration provides fellowship recipients with two years of intensive training and mentorship – the first year at the Crick and the second year at their African partner institute – to foster the next generation of research leaders in Africa.
Rohlwink and Parihar follow in the footsteps of UCT postdoctoral research scientists Dr Kate Webb, who was one of the award 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,” said Rohlwink, who has a fellowship from the UCT Neuroscience Institute and is a member of the Division of Neurosurgery.
“This [ACA] 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 [and] I am excited about living in London for six months.”
In addition to their time in the UK, the fellows will also work at one of the five African partner institutions. These are UCT and Stellenbosch University, the Medical Research Council (MRC) Uganda Virus Research Institute and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine Uganda Research Unit, the MRC Unit in the Gambia, which also represents the West African Global Health Alliance, and the University of Ghana.
“My project for the CAN fellowship will [examine] changes in brain metabolism and electrical activity as a result of tuberculous meningitis.”
Brain and gene research
Rohlwink is based at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital in Cape Town. 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 said.
Parihar, who has a National Research Foundation Y2 rating, is a contributing investigator in CIDRI-Africa, the Wellcome Centre for Infectious Diseases 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.
“The research environment at the IDM is vibrant, diverse and extremely collaborative,” he said.
Speaking to his work, he explained that it was 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 of 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 to have the opportunity to work at the Crick. “My research goal is to improve current strategies against TB by exploiting host-directed therapies, which have a strong potential to be used as an adjunct to antibiotics.”
Building for the future
Each fellowship recipient is allocated £145 000 over the two years to cover salaries, some necessary equipment, and research costs.
Working with the Crick means both Rohlwink and Parihar will be learning new techniques that could influence their work, as well as building long-term networks that may result in future partnerships. They will also come into contact with some renowned scientists in their fields.
“I [will] have the chance to engage them on their thoughts, and what I aim to investigate,” said Parihar.
Although the award officially begins in 2020, Rohlwink is already planning the logistics of “how it will play out on a practical level”. She highlighted funding – including for research costs and salary support – as a significant challenge for African researchers. The fellowship addresses this by directing funding towards early-career researchers and providing support to help establish them as emerging leaders in their research fields.
“There is little job security in academia,” said Rohlwink. “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 groundbreaking research if we have the financial support. The CAN fellowships are a superb example of that kind of support.”
“Our access to rich clinical data and samples puts us in a position where we can truly do groundbreaking research if we have the financial support.”
Training and technology
Parihar added that although there is a lot of infrastructure in South Africa, 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,” he said. “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.”
Looking ahead, both researchers are mindful of the importance of their ACA awards for their work, and for addressing critical medical needs and improving health outcomes through translational research.
“Translation is always a priority of the work I start,” said Parihar. “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.”
Rohlwink added, “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.
“I hope my work on brain injury in children will contribute to that.”