Established UCT researcher makes history with Wellcome Discovery Award

19 January 2024 | Story Linda Daniels. Photo Supplied. Read time 7 min.
Prof Anthony Figaji, clinician and researcher in the Division of Neurosurgery at the Neurosciences Institute, is spurred by the urgent need for improved therapies, given the high mortality rates behind TB meningitis.
Prof Anthony Figaji, clinician and researcher in the Division of Neurosurgery at the Neurosciences Institute, is spurred by the urgent need for improved therapies, given the high mortality rates behind TB meningitis.

In a groundbreaking achievement, the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Professor Anthony Figaji received the prestigious Wellcome Discovery Award, which offers funding for established researchers across disciplines. This grant supports innovative research ideas with the potential to bring about substantial shifts in understanding, ultimately enhancing human life, health and wellbeing.

The Discovery Award is an initiative by the Wellcome Trust foundation established in 1936. A worldwide charitable foundation dedicated to supporting scientific endeavours aimed at addressing significant health challenges affecting people globally.

The recipient, Professor Figaji, is a clinician and researcher in the Division of Neurosurgery at the Neurosciences Institute. He holds the National Research Foundation SARChI Chair of Clinical Neurosciences and is at the forefront of advancing clinically relevant neuroscience research.

This Wellcome-funded research project by Figaji and team aims to deepen understanding of the brain, in particular how the brain responds to infection.

 

“Despite decades of use, our therapies have not improved much and there is still a lot about the disease mechanisms, how the brain responds and how our therapies work – or not – that we do not understand.”

Figaji explained that the motivation behind this research stems from the alarming global impact of tuberculosis (TB), particularly in its most lethal manifestation when it affects the brain —TB meningitis. He pointed out that there is an urgent need for improved therapies, given the high mortality rates of those suffering from TB meningitis, especially among individuals co-infected with HIV. This includes the frequent occurrence of permanent disabilities among survivors.

“Despite decades of use, our therapies have not improved much and there is still a lot about the disease mechanisms, how the brain responds and how our therapies work – or not – that we do not understand,” Figaji explained.

Research project stands out through interdisciplinarity and clinical innovation

When asked about the competitive advantages distinguishing the research project, Figaji emphasized the intentional interdisciplinary and translational focus. Additionally, he expressed the privilege of leading a team of skilled and dedicated individuals, as well as the opportunity to work alongside researchers who share similar values from various fields of study.

 

“The best progress comes when we apply the diverse insights and skills of people from different backgrounds and experiences, all of which are complementary and amount to a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.”

“We believe that the best progress comes when we apply the diverse insights and skills of people from different backgrounds and experiences, all of which are complementary and amount to a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.

“Over many years we have slowly created a unique clinical infrastructure for critically ill patients, where we are able to access samples directly from the central nervous system through cutting-edge procedures that enable advanced clinical care for patients. At the same time this enables novel bench research that would be otherwise impossible, and is a great demonstration of collaboration between clinicians and laboratory scientists,” he said.

Studying the organ directly is too complex, as a result there is limited understanding of disease in the brain, according to Figaji. For example, researchers make assumptions from research on blood samples or cerebrospinal fluid from lumbar punctures, which might not fully reflect events in the brain. Additionally, researchers are limited to single point-in-time samples or brain imaging, but the processes studied are highly dynamic over time and are inter-related. To address this, the methods the research team have pioneered enable them to examine the brain directly and at multiple points over time, so that a more accurate and ‘bigger’ picture is developed.

Figaji commented that enabling the work that lays the foundation for a grant of this nature requires the input of a large team. Preparing a grant of this size requires very specific input, unwavering perseverance and hours of hard work by key team members. He acknowledged the contribution of numerous individuals across the Faculty of Health Sciences, with specific mention of Associate Professor Ursula Rohlwink and Dr Jill Combrinck who worked closely with him on all aspects of the application.

Understanding before action

The grant is about new discovery and as such the research team have prioritised understanding before action.

“Some focus areas include understanding the disease mechanisms that lead to damage to brain tissue, through studying metabolism and inflammation in the brain. We hope this will unlock new understanding of the host response to disease and open opportunities for host-directed therapy. This is important because we know that the way a patient responds to the disease critically influences its course.

“We are also interested in how effectively our drugs get to the place where they are most needed. When we understand that better, we can make more informed decisions about the most effective drugs and the most effective dosage regimens,” Figaji explained.

Research team grateful for historic award

The research team expressed their appreciation and thanks to the Wellcome Trust for their confidence in them.

 

“Cutting-edge interdisciplinary neuroscience can be done right here in Africa.”

“This Discovery award is primarily about novel discovery science and is a competitive process across many great universities all over the world. When we applied, it was intimidating that these grants were rarely awarded outside of universities in high-income countries, and none to a primary team in South Africa. We greatly appreciate their recognition that cutting-edge interdisciplinary neuroscience can be done right here in Africa,” expressed Figaji.

The research team is of the conviction that aspiring professionals can achieve global recognition and contribute meaningfully to their fields on the continent, fostering a reverse trend where students from high-income countries may seek opportunities in our region and so countering the continental ‘brain drain’.

“Very often, young people believe that to advance their career they need to move to universities in high-income countries. While there is value in cross-pollination, we strongly believe that they can develop world-leading careers right here in Africa. In many ways, the opportunities to make a difference are even greater here. To do so while discovering more about the brain is particularly exciting,” he said.

The research team’s achievement in securing the Wellcome Discovery Award stands as a testament to the potential for groundbreaking research and global contributions emerging from the African continent.


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