Page 85 - UCT Research Report 2011

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That also to some extent summarises the work of
Professor Jonathan Blackburn and his group. Professor
Blackburn came to South Africa some eight years ago
– with his South African wife, Associate Professor Nicola
Mulder, head of the IIDMM’s Computational Biology
Group – bringing with him experience in an array of
cutting-edge basic science technologies and a specific
focus on proteomics – the massively parallel study of
the differential abundance, localisation, and function of
proteins in a biological system.
In South Africa, where he now holds a SARChI Chair in
Applied Proteomics and Chemical Biology, he has set
out to apply those technologies, such as mass array
spectrometry and protein microarrays, to a cross-section
of diseases. This includes tuberculosis and cancers, with
a smattering of work on HIV.
His work in proteomics falls into two distinct areas,
explains Professor Blackburn – discovery-oriented
research and systematic, quantitative studies. In the
latter, for example, his team aims to track the body’s
autoimmune responses to cancers, quantifying the
changes in the autoimmune profiles of patients that
occur during disease progression, or after radio-therapy,
chemotherapy or therapeutic vaccination. It is research
that they have applied to cancers such as skin cancer
(melanoma) and colorectal cancer (cancer of the bowel),
both of which are of increasing concern in South Africa.
On the discovery front, Professor Blackburn and his
group have teamed up with tuberculosis researchers
to identify both protein and lipid (a group of molecules
that strongly interact with proteins) biomarkers, whose
presence closely reflects the presence or severity of​
TB disease.
His research requires technologies and equipment that
Professor Blackburn had, to a large extent, set up himself
at the IIDMM. Very little appropriate infrastructure was in
place when he first arrived, Professor Blackburn reports,
and had to be built from scratch, thanks to funding from
both the Department of Science and Technology in South
Africa, and sources in the UK and Canada. It has opened
up whole new technological vistas for local researchers,
he believes.
burden of disease
Sputum induction being done on a young child with suspected tuberculosis. This novel method enables mucus to be
obtained for rapid diagnosis of TB, thus facilitating prompt treatment of childhood TB.