Thirteen young scientists from the SANTHE network were among 300 health scientists from Africa and beyond that gathered at a landmark scientific meeting in Dakar, Senegal, from 15 to 17 July, to showcase ground-breaking research aimed at reducing Africa’s disease burden and creating healthier communities. Topics of discussion included progress being made on research towards an HIV cure and early detection tools for cancer and malaria.
The DELTAS Africa Scientific Conference, organised by the Nairobi-based African Academy of Sciences (AAS) and themed, “A critical mass: developing world class research leaders,” was the first in Francophone Africa, demonstrating the participants’ collective commitment to break language and geographical barriers and help foster intra-African collaboration.
“It represents a unique opportunity to demonstrate the value of investing in science and in training a critical mass of scientific leaders in Africa,” said DELTAS Africa Programme Manager Alphonsus Neba. “DELTAS Africa is creating professional cutting-edge research environments that will be sustained long after the programme has ended and provide conducive environments to do great science,” he adds.
The 13 SANTHE scientists profiled at the meeting came from SANTHE affiliated sites in Botswana, Cameroon, Canada, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, and Zambia. Some of these included:
- Isabella Ferreira, a SANTHE Masters Fellow, based at the Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI) in Durban, South Africa. She presented her research on identifying the cellular HIV reservoir in lymph nodes in people on antiretroviral (ARV) treatment. The HIV reservoir is where the replication-competent virus hides in the presence of ARV drugs and prevents individuals from being cured. Ferreira’s research has developed a method using paired single-cell sequencing that will eventually reveal what these HIV reservoir cell types are. “If we know these cell types, we can begin developing a targeted therapy to eradicate the virus in these cells,” she said.
- Lerato Ndlovu, a SANTHE PhD Fellow, also based at AHRI. She is identifying easy-to-measure changes in the immune system of tuberculosis (TB) patients that indicate the severity of infection and can therefore be used to monitor patient response to drug treatment. “The overall goal is to develop an approach for real-time tracking of TB treatment success to improve TB cure rates and aid patient management,” she said.
- Okechukwu Ndumnego, a SANTHE Post-doctoral Fellow based at AHRI. He has identified a protein (sCD14) produced in HIV positive people – who have an increased risk of developing TB throughout their lifetime in spite of ART - that can be used in the early identification of these at-risk persons before they develop TB disease.
- Clive Michelo, a SANTHE Post-doctoral Fellow based at the Rwanda Zambia HIV Research Group (ZEHRG) at the University of Zambia in Lusaka. He is looking into designing and developing vaccines that target specific communities to try to control HIV. ““HIV-1 viruses present with so much diversity that it has been difficult to develop just one vaccine able to target most of the HIV-1 strains,” he said. “However studies have shown that different regions of the world have specific prevailing strains within given communities. Vaccines that target these communities could go a long way to controlling the epidemic.”
- Motswedi Anderson, a SANTHE Post-doctoral Fellow based at the Botswana Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership (BHP) in Gaborone. She is seeking to estimate the rate of new hepatitis B virus (HBV) infections and clearance rates among HIV-1C (a common HIV strain) infected adults living in Botswana who have not yet started treatment. 22 new HBV infections were identified throughout the study and HBV loads were higher in new cases than in chronic infections. “This study supports the screening of HBV in households of HBsAg positive cases in order to prevent new infections that can spread quickly,” said Anderson. “I am hoping my findings will influence policy in Botswana as currently there is no viral hepatitis policy.”
- Tuelo Mogashoa, a SANTHE Masters Fellow also based at BHP. She presented her study on how common drug-resistant TB is in Botswana and to look at patient treatment outcomes. The occurrence and spread of TB that is resistant to most available medicines presents a serious danger to controlling the disease. Mogashoa’s study shows the importance of routinely testing patients to see if they have drug resistant TB so that they can be given appropriate and effective treatments. “The results of the study provide research evidence that supports the changes in the testing algorithm for MDR-TB (multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis) patients,” she said. “Currently, the testing algorithm in Botswana has been changed to include testing for second line drug-resistance treatment for all MDR patients.”
- Fredrick Omondi, a Kenyan SANTHE Masters Fellow based at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. He presented his research on how the HIV virus very cleverly hides in sites within the human body known as reservoirs which have proven to be inaccessible to even potent anti-HIV drugs, thus making it difficult to treat HIV infection. “Our study highlights the important impact of variation in genetic composition of the circulating HIV viruses and differences in protein function on HIV reservoir size,” he said. “This important finding could lead to new therapeutic and vaccine design strategies for eliminating or preventing these viral reservoirs from forming, which could ultimately result in a cure for HIV.”
The convening was the third Annual Grantees’ Meeting of The Developing Excellence in Leadership, Training and Science (DELTAS Africa) programme; a $100-million programme of the AAS supporting the Africa-led development of world-class scientific leaders through health research support, training fellowships, mentorship, and investments in research infrastructure in 12 programmes (of which SANTHE is one) spanning 21 countries. Notable attendees included the “Father of Africa Genomics”, Charles Rotimi from the National Institute of Health, and the 2008 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, Marty Chalfie. DELTAS Africa’s goal is to produce a critical mass of new cadre health researchers and scientists who will be at the forefront of cutting-edge research, influencing local health policy and driving a locally relevant health research agenda for Africa. The DELTAS Africa Scientific Conference will mark a major milestone in the run-up to this critical objective. Among the programme’s achievements to date:
- Close to 1,500 master’s, PhD and postdoctoral trainees, half of whom are women, have been recruited in the four years of the programme and have collectively published 493 papers in high impact journals
- With close to 348 PhD and postdoctoral Fellows registered in institutions outside their home countries, the programme is also promoting intra-Africa collaboration, which is important to mobilise political support for research, to pool scant resources and maximise impact for shared challenges.
- The 12 programmes have collectively attracted additional 298 grants worth over $227 million and received 153 prizes and awards worth $9.3million in recognition of their scientific excellence.
The meeting also provides a platform for over 200 DELTAS Africa funded fellows and researchers – specifically Masters, PhD and Post-doctoral trainees from its 12 programmes – to showcase scientific outcomes and likely impact of their health research. Scientific breakthroughs discussed at the meeting included progress being made on research towards an HIV cure in South Africa, and efforts towards the development of a low-cost HIV drug resistance assay (70% lower cost - from $100-$200 to $40-$70), that could substantially reduce the cost of HIV drug resistance surveillance in Africa – a SANTHE project.