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Faculty of Health Sciences and SAMRC take medical research to new heights

13 Aug 2015 - 11:30

The pre-eminent funder for health-related research in South Africa, the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) is funding crucial work relevant to the local context in several clinical departments in the Faculty of Health Sciences at UCT.


Among the clinical departments with significant SAMRC funding are medicine, obstetrics and gynaecology, paediatrics, psychiatry, and surgery. Heads of these departments have led by example, each contributing to SAMRC-funded research in important ways.

Head of the Department of Medicine, Prof Bongani Mayosi, said SAMRC links with UCT ran deep through project grants, funding of students and senior investigators, research networks and prizes for excellence in research.

"In all of these opportunities, everyone has some link with the SAMRC one way or another. Via Parliament, the SAMRC is the primary funder of medical research, so it is appropriate that it should be the foundation of our research."

On a national level, Mayosi also chairs a panel for the National Health Scholars Programme which aims to fund 1 000 PhDs in health sciences over the next 10 years in all areas of work.

"It's an ambitious project and the first of its kind in South Africa that is going to produce the leading edge of the system," he said. "The intention is to really lift the standard of medicine and provide world leadership."

Cutting-edge research

Head of the Paediatrics, Prof Heather Zar, is the director of a new SAMRC Unit on Child and Adolescent Health, which does cutting-edge research in pressing areas of concern, as well as of an SAMRC-funded TB consortium.

She said support from, and co-operation with, the SAMRC and her UCT team had strengthened much of their research.

"Our work focuses on the diseases that cause the major morbidity and mortality in children particularly in South Africa and in Africa including pneumonia, TB, HIV and asthma; the research aims to develop new, improved ways to diagnose, prevent and manage such illnesses.

"Such work involves many collaborations with outstanding people at UCT and further afield and the partnerships with the provincial health department. This work is made possible by the excellent research teams that we have."

Zar added: "Lastly the council has supported our work through self-initiated grants and through career scientist awards (my own career was enabled when I received such an award many years ago to do my PhD!), enabling development of specific research projects and capacity development with support of doctoral students."

Head of the Obstetrics and Gynaecology Prof Lynnette Denny heads a group recently awarded a five-year grant of R2.5 million per year to create an SAMRC/UCT Gynaecological Cancer Research Centre (one of three similarly funded cancer centres in the country) with the aim of doing research from 'the bench to the bedside'.

"In addition to our partnership with SAMRC, we have formed a partnership with Walter Sisulu University (WSU) in Mthatha. Our group consists of 14 people representing the basic sciences (virology, molecular pathology, immunology and biochemistry), gynaecological oncology clinicians and a radiation oncologist, a gynaecological pathologist, a public health specialist and two gynaecologists and a radiation oncologist from Eastern Cape," said Denny.

"In the first year, we plan on developing reliable infrastructure to support research and to focus on four retrospective studies that have full clinical outcome details to ensure rapid production of publications in high-impact journals."

Funding key to success

Head of Psychiatry and Mental Health Prof Dan Stein is director of the UCT/SU SAMRC Unit on Anxiety and Stress Disorders. Anxiety and related disorders are the most prevalent of the psychiatric disorders, and they contribute significantly to South Africa's burden of disease. Under Stein's direction the unit has done a broad range of research on these conditions, ranging from animal models, through to clinical research (including neuroimaging, neurogenetics, and clinical trials), and on to public mental health research.

Neuroscience methods initially developed in the unit have been extended to other areas; for example, UCT's signature theme, the Brain Behaviour Initiative, also directed by Stein, began with a focus on psychological trauma, but has grown to also address problems such as substance use disorders and neuro HIV/AIDS.

Stein was recently awarded the TW Kambule award from the National Science and Technology Foundation for his contributions to research in the past 5 to 10 years. He says that SAMRC funding for the unit, as well as collaboration with colleagues and students in his department, and support from hospital managers, was key to this success.

Prof Del Kahn was co-head for many years of the very successful SAMRC/UCT Liver Research Centre. Like many SAMRC/UCT efforts, the centre exemplified multidisciplinary collaboration, with the involvement of both basic and clinical scientists.

The SAMRC indicated that the 10 collaborating units at UCT were headed by researchers "best poised to answer critical questions that will impact on the health and well-being of South Africans, both in urban and rural areas".

Said SAMRC President Prof Glenda Gray: "The decision to collaborate with universities was another critical step in the right direction to producting cutting edge, high impact medical research. We are excited to see scientists embarking on bold and innovative projects in Africa."

Story by Andrea Weiss. Photo supplied.