Dr Zaza Ndhlovu, Sub-Saharan African Network for TB/HIV Research Excellence (SANTHE) Researcher/Supervisor and Honorary Senior Lecturer at the HIV Pathogenesis Programme (HPP) of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), has been selected for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s (HHMI) International Research Scholars Programme and awarded a five-year grant of $650 000. He was one of 41 scientists selected, out of the 1 500 that applied from 16 countries worldwide. He is also one of only two successful applicants from the continent of Africa.
HHMI, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, established the Research Scholars Programme to help develop scientific talent in a wide variety of biomedical research fields and, in this round, awarded nearly $26.7 million in total. Ndhlovu elaborates, “The awards aim to support early-career scientists who are poised to advance biomedical research across the globe, offering them the freedom to pursue new research directions and creative projects that could develop into top-notch scientific programmes.”
Innovation is one of the imperative requirements of the programme and Ndhlovu answered this call by proposing the first study that seeks to, more precisely, determine the type of immune response needed to be induced by vaccination, or other immune based therapies, to protect against new infection or cure HIV infection. “The study will use a mouse model reconstituted with a human immune system to allow manipulation of the human immune systems in ways that cannot be done in humans. Selectively transferring different populations of predefined human killer immune cell subsets isolated from HIV infected persons into HIV infected mice, will lead to the discovery of the most potent HIV killer cell subsets. If successful, the results of this study will set the standard for the quality of immune responses needed to be elicited by a vaccine,” he said.
“The study will focus on immune cells isolated from human lymph nodes which is the major site of HIV replication during antiretroviral therapy. These studies will lead to the discovery of how to direct immune responses to sites of active HIV replication lymphoid tissues in people on suppressive antiretroviral therapy as a novel strategy for achieving a cure for HIV.”
Describing the highly competitive three-stage application process, Ndhlovu said he had to submit an initial letter of intent, and when that was successful, a full application. He was then invited to attend an interview in London at Wellcome Trust headquarters to present his research and credentials, as well as answer questions from a panel of distinguished scientific reviewers.
The Zambian-born scientist said he was exceedingly surprised to hear he had been shortlisted for the interview. “There I was, competing with acclaimed scientists from China, Australia and all these European countries, who have almost unlimited resources and are doing great, cutting edge science. And even in the US, there are very few people who are elected to be HHMI scholars. Nominations are a major accolade but being selected is even better!”
He was also quick to add that he had not won the award alone. “Research is not a one-man show - it is always done in collaboration with other people - and for me and my career, right from the get go, the person that stands out most is my mentor, Dr Bruce Walker (SANTHE Site Principal Investigator and Director, Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard and Harvard University Center for AIDS Research). He has really helped me to excel, providing all the necessary resources and opportunities.”
“This award is a remarkable achievement, and a tremendous tribute to Zaza’s creativity, commitment and innovation. He is an outstanding scientist whose research being done here in Africa, is having an international impact,” said a proud Bruce Walker.
Ndhlovu said he was also exceptionally lucky to work under the leadership of Professor Thumbi Ndung’u, SANTHE Programme Director and UKZN’s HPP Director. “He is just one of the greatest guys you could ever work with – he’s been very welcoming, supportive and a very accomplished scientist himself.”
Ndhlovu also gave credit to his graduate students and support staff at HPP, and especially acknowledged the cohorts he used to access samples, “The women from the FRESH (Females Rising through Education, Support, and Health) are selfless – they graciously allow us to get samples from them for our research. And of course, this would not be possible without the people that run the cohort itself, namely Krista Dong (Director of the Integration of TB in Education and Care for HIV/AIDS (iTEACH) programme based in KwaZulu-Natal) and Amber Moodley (FRESH Programme Manager), who collect the samples. I believe this award is really a testament to our group effort.”
Asked what the award meant to him personally, Ndhlovu said that apart from the funding which was desperately needed, the award came with recognition from the field that his work had the potential to contribute substantially to the field of HIV research. “It’s also recognition for our institution and African institutions like ours - that we can do cutting edge science in Africa at the heart of the this devastating epidemic. We publish papers in very high impact journals from work that is done locally, and we have shown that we can succeed and excel and compete with the rest and best of the world. I really hope this motivates younger African scientists to aim for the stars.”
Up to this point, Ndhlovu’s studies have sought to understand how certain, rare people, who are HIV infected and not on any therapy, do not experience an increase in infection and show no symptoms or long-term effects of the virus. He and his colleagues have made significant discoveries about key features of HIV-specific killer white blood cell groups that can inhibit the spread of the virus and drive immunity. Their work is crucial to the development of vaccines for HIV and other agents of infectious diseases.
Over and above his role within SANTHE and HPP, he is an Instructor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Assistant in Immunology at Massachusetts General Hospital. He also conducts scientific reading and grant writing workshops for African scientists at various African Universities. He completed his post graduate training in the US, receiving his PhD in Molecular Microbiology and Immunology from Johns Hopkins University and his post-doctoral training at Harvard University in the laboratory of Dr Bruce Walker.
The scientists selected as HMMI International Research Scholars represent a diverse array of scientific disciplines and geographic locations. Scholars hail from research organisations and institutions from across the world, from Tanzania to Cambodia to Chile to Austria. Their research covers a broad variety of biological and medical research areas, including neuroscience, genetics, biophysics, computational biology, and parasitology.