UKZN Announces Names of First Nine DRILL FellowsGeneral

The new Developing Research Innovation, Localisation and Leadership in South Africa (DRILL) Fellows.The new Developing Research Innovation, Localisation and Leadership in South Africa (DRILL) Fellows.

UKZN’s College of Health Sciences (CHS) has announced its first cohort of nine Fellows under the auspices of Developing Research Innovation, Localisation and Leadership in South Africa (DRILL).

The project is receiving funding of R45 million over a five-year period from the United States Fogarty International Center of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The grant, awarded in 2015, funds the training of 20 junior researchers from UKZN and the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health, with the aim of producing world-class scientists who will lead and direct research programmes designed around real world problems outside metropolitan areas. The new Fellows will prioritise health research that is underpinned by the philosophy of social accountability in the scientific areas of HIV and AIDS, mental health, health professions education and health systems research.

It is envisaged that the Fellows will also be trained for academic positions at UKZN with a strong developmental plan that would prepare them to apply for a National Research Foundation (NRF) rating and academic promotion.

Two of the new Fellows - Dr Euphemia Mbali Mhlongo and Ms Varsha Bangalee - will focus on health systems strengthening.

Mhlongo’s study will assess the progress towards the goals of the National Health Insurance (NHI) in two pilot districts in KwaZulu-Natal, specifically the factors which enable or hamper progress.

Bangalee, who is a Pharmacist, will focus on the use, benefit and applicability of health technology assessments in regard to pharmaceutical pricing; policy monitoring and development; and decision making.

In the field of HIV and AIDS, three new fellowships were awarded to Medical Practioner, Dr Thabile Wendy Mphatswe, Medical Scientist, Dr Jacobus Hendricks, and Pathologist, Dr Bongani Nkambule.

Mphatswe’s research will focus on clinical, viral and immunological factors associated with human papillomavirus (HPV) clearance and treatment outcomes following surgical excision of intraepithelial lesions of the cervix in HIV positive patients. She believes that an understanding of clinical, viral and immunological factors associated with treatment response of cervical pre-invasive lesions including the effect of HIV infection and ART on this, are critical to the development of treatment and follow up strategies that could improve the outcome of patients who are already infected with HPV.

Hendricks, who has a PhD in Immunogenetics, will focus on the targeting of B-cell immune checkpoints that induce improved antibody responses in HIV. Essentially, an understanding of antibody responses could lead to the development of more efficient and safer pharmaceutical drugs aimed at combatting the virus.

Nkambule’s study aims to identify signalling pathways and immune check points that may serve as a link between inflammation and thrombosis in inflammatory conditions such as HIV and Type 2 diabetes. This study concentrates on therapeutic strategies for management of patients who are at risk of developing metabolic disease or thrombotic complications.

Awarded a fellowship within the area of Health Professions Education are UKZN academics Ms Diane van Staden and Mr Saul Cobbing.

Trained as an Optometrist, van Staden’s research is aimed at developing a planning framework for a decentralised model of training in health sciences within the South African context.

Cobbing’s physiotherapy research project aims to design and implement the multidisciplinary training of community health care workers and maximise their effectiveness at carrying out general rehabilitative assessment and services in the homes of People Living with HIV in an underserved district of KwaZulu-Natal.

The two Fellows doing research in the field of Mental Health are Dr Lihle Qulu and Dr Thabisile Mpofana.

The focus is on febrile seizures which are a paediatric disorder affecting between 10% and 18% of children in certain parts of Africa and are by far the most common convulsive disorder. The seizures are a consequence of infections such as otitis media (middle ear infection), gastro intestinal infections and other childhood infections. Qulu, a Neuroscientist, will investigate the mechanism by which Searsia chirindensis, also known as Red Current and which is commonly found in the eastern parts of Southern Africa, attenuates febrile seizures.

Mpofana, a Medical Scientist, will seek to understand the progression of the neurodegenerative disorder of Parkinson’s disease as a result of maternal separation. Earlier studies have indicated that exposure to stressful events during the early postnatal period affects the development of the brain therefore making a person more susceptible to the development of neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease later in life. Mpofana’s study will not only create a better understanding of Parkinson’s disease but also result in new approaches in the treatment of the disease and preventative measures.

Professor Rob Slotow, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Head of CHS, congratulated the new fellows but reminded them of the importance of excelling. ‘Do not be mediocre. Mediocrity doesn’t help. You need to find a way to excel in all that you do. We wish you all the best.’

Professor Petra Brysiewicz of DRILL, said: ‘We are thrilled to introduce the DRILL Fellows who are staff with incredible life stories of their academic journey thus far. We are privileged to be able to work with this exceptional group and look forward to exciting years ahead!’

MaryAnn Francis