Page 84 - UCT Research Report 2011

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UCT Research Report '11
Professor Valerie Mizrahi sees the Institute
of Infectious Disease and Molecular
Medicine (IIDMM) as the marriage of three
worlds. The director of the institute, she
says that it operates at the “laboratory, clinic
and community interface”. That best sums
up the IIDMM’s motto: to make its work
translational – to ensure that its findings in
the laboratories make it all the way into South
African hospitals, clinics, and communities.
Training its efforts on red-letter diseases such as HIV/AIDS
and tuberculosis (TB) as well as cancers and genetic
conditions of local concern, the institute comes with the
right pedigree at every one of those three levels. Host to
more than 20 research groups, the institute’s members
between them hold six national DST/NRF SARChI Chairs.
Four units fall under the banner of the Medical Research
Council, as do two research groups.
Pioneering science and drug
At the laboratory end of the research agenda sits the likes of
Professor Frank Brombacher – who holds the SARChI Chair
in Immunology of Infectious Diseases in Africa – and his
Cytokines and Disease Group within the independent Cape
Town component of the International Centre for Genetic
Engineering and Biotechnology, hosted at UCT. Premising
their work on mouse models, Professor Brombacher and
his group are interested in the body’s immune system;
how it works, regulates its activities, and how it responds
to diseases of particular interest in Africa. These diseases
are most notably tuberculosis, African trypanosomiasis
(the parasitic disease commonly known as sleeping
sickness), leishmaniasis (another parasitic disease, which is
transmitted by the bite of certain sand flies and pervasive in
East and North Africa), and infections spread by worm-like
parasites known as helminths, including schistosomiasis,
also known as bilharzia.
The work they do will hopefully provide the foundation
for the treatments developed further down the road, says
Professor Brombacher.
A big-picture view to reduce the
burden of disease
in Africa
“Using transgenic mouse models, we are uncovering
fundamental mechanisms of host protection and/or failure
thereof. This will help to understand the biology of
complex systems better, understand our immune system
better, and results and conclusions should feed into
rational strategies for vaccine and drug intervention.”
There is some overlap between Professor Brombacher’s
work and that of the IIDMM’s Drug Discovery and
Synthetic Medicinal Chemistry Group, led by principal
investigator, Professor Kelly Chibale. This group, too,
has an interest in tuberculosis and helminths, but also
malaria, TB, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. And
while its name hints directly at the group’s interest in
identifying synthetic compounds that could be developed
into drugs, it has also initiated research into natural
products derived from general biodiversity, which can be
used as scaffolds to generate semi synthetic analogues.
Professor Chibale’s research group has also established
technology platforms that are being used to reconstruct
what happens to African traditional medicines in the
body, with attendant safety and risk assessments.
Part of that research is being conducted under the
auspices of the new Drug Discovery & Development
Centre (H3-D), launched in 2011 and one of UCT’s
signature research themes. The centre is directed by
Professor Chibale, who also holds the DST/NRF SARChI
Chair in Drug Discovery. He says that while Africa’s
scientists have proven adept at basic science and also
at running clinical trials, they have not added value in
the middle ground; one aim of the H3-D is to develop
the technical capacity that will allow the continent’s
researchers – working closely with pharmaceutical
companies – to design drugs that target diseases of
local concern.
“We do not as yet have a track record of discovering and
developing medicines,” says Professor Chibale. “This
centre is aimed at bridging that gap between the basic
sciences and the clinical sciences.”
“While Africa’s scientists have proven
adept at basic science and also at
running clinical trials, they have not
added value in the middle ground.”