Driving Research to New Heights with NRF Thuthuka AwardsGeneral

Ms Varsha Bangalee, Dr Bongani Nkambule, Dr Phikelelani Ngubane and Dr Onyameachi Azu.Ms Varsha Bangalee, Dr Bongani Nkambule, Dr Phikelelani Ngubane and Dr Onyameachi Azu.

Four researchers at UKZN’s College of Health Sciences have been awarded grants by the National Research Foundation (NRF) for 2017.

They are Ms Varsha Bangalee, Dr Bongani Nkambule, Dr Phikelelani Ngubane and Dr Onyameachi Azu.

The NRF’s Thuthuka Funding Instrument is a key intervention aimed at supporting emerging researchers who are academics and/or researchers holding academic and/or joint academic and administrative professional appointments at public universities, scientific councils and other public research institutions recognised by the NRF. 

Thuthuka grants provide funding for researchers within South African academic institutions on three stipulated tracks. The first is the PhD Track, the second is the Post-PhD Track for applicants wanting to become established researchers by strengthening their research capabilities, while the third is the NRF Rating Track, which is for applicants keen to apply for a NRF rating within the six-year funding period.

Bangalee’s grant provides funding specifically for teaching replacement during data capture and while she is writing up her doctoral thesis. Bangalee is a Lecturer in the Discipline of Pharmaceutical Sciences.

Bangalee’s research involves assessing and evaluating the impact of private sector pricing and supply chain policy implementation on the access to and use of medicines in South Africa, with the aim being to provide case examples for other low and middle income countries as well as to add to the body of evidence on pricing policies.

After 20 years of policy change, surprisingly little monitoring or evaluation of policy impacts have been undertaken to determine exactly how successful these policies have been in reducing inequity.

‘I am extremely proud to receive this grant as it is viewed as a very prestigious award. It also aptly suits my research needs and has afforded me the opportunity to successfully move forward with my research,’ said Bangalee.

‘Post-apartheid, South Africa, has pioneered several interventions to improve medicine pricing and increase access to affordable healthcare.  Despite some clear successes, much work is still to be done, particularly as the country moves toward universal health care coverage.’

She hopes to publish her findings and successfully obtain her PhD.

Dr Bongani Nkambule, a Senior Lecturer in the Human Physiology Discipline within UKZN’s School of Laboratory Medicine and Medical Sciences, says what makes his research distinct is the fact that his research unit focuses on innovation, collaboration and mentoring. These are key pillars he believes will accelerate research and capacity development in South Africa and Africa as a whole.

‘The grant will help fund work in evaluating the potential therapeutic benefits modulating the immune system in Type 2 diabetes. Understanding the regulators of immunometabolism in chronic disease such as Type 2 diabetes will pave the way for earlier interventions and treatment interventions in prediabetes patients,’ said Nkambule.

Nkambule’s research investigates chronic inflammation and immunometabolism in type 2 diabetes. His study will look at the dynamic reprogramming of cellular metabolism of immune cells in type 2 diabetes. ‘My research group aims to characterise early cellular and genetic modifications that are associated with a shift or switch in normal immune metabolism to pathological alterations in immune metabolism. These will then be translated from laboratory markers into potential point of care tests that will benefit remote communities affected by obesity and at an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.’

Nkambule said the grant application was a joint effort between himself and Dr Phiwayinkosi Dluldla of the Biomedical Research and Innovation Platform at the Medical Research Council (MRC) of South Africa.

Nkambule is set to continue to work towards understanding the dynamics of immune system in metabolic disease. ‘My passion lies in mentoring and motivating young researchers to persist and reach their full potential.’

Dr Phikelelani Ngubane, a Lecturer in the Discipline of Human Physiology, says the grant came at the right time - a year after he received his doctorate. ‘I was so excited to receive the award - it means a lot for my growth and development as I’ve always looked forward to implementing some research ideas independently.’

Elaborating on his research grant he said a large number of people in developing countries did not have access to healthcare facilities so traditional medicine was a long-standing alternative. ‘There is therefore a need to validate these treatments, often prescribed by traditional healers. This so we can help guide and educate people about which plants are useful should they not be in a position to access primary healthcare.’

The study he received the grant for is titled: “The Effects of Medicinal Plants and their Bioactive Compounds on Diabetes Management, which deals with validating therapeutic claims of some medicinal plants and advancing indigenous knowledge systems”.

Medical plants play an important role in the management of diabetes mellitus in developing countries where resources are minimal. The study seeks to invoke more interest in bio-screening of as many medicinal plants as possible for their hypoglycaemic potential by describing the profiles of plants with hypoglycaemic properties reported in the literature.

‘Our research has also reported beneficial effects of a number of plants frequently used in southern Africa on some processes associated with aetiology of diabetic complications. The mechanisms by which these plants exert their therapeutic effects however are not yet fully understood,’ said Ngubane.

‘The overall aim of the study is to investigate the mechanisms by which these medicinal plants and their bioactive compounds exert their hypoglycaemic effects.’

Dr Onyemaechi Azu, an Honorary Senior Lecturer in the Discipline of Clinical Anatomy at the School of Laboratory Medicine and Medical Sciences, said the grant enabled him to investigate the testicular histomorphologic alterations following highly active antiretroviral treatment and the ameliorative effects of hypoxis hemerocallidea in experimental normal and hypertensive models.

‘This is the first report to document the potential for complex interactions between traditional African medicine and ARVs as used in HAART cocktails in normotensive and hypertensive experimental models.’

He said Dr ECS Naidu and Professor Anil Chuturgoon assisted in the grant application.

‘This research award is a great achievement and a starting point for higher pinnacle of research contributions.  We shall be looking at vascular perturbations in a hypertensive mode since hypertension has become a strong co-morbid condition for ART in the regions with very high roll-out of ARVs,’ said Azu.

Lihle Sosibo