Fellowship award for UCT academic

23 March 2006

UCT virologist and bioinformaticist Dr Darren Martin has been selected as the first recipient of the Sydney Brenner fellowship.

The two-year research fellowship is a donation by South African born molecular biologist, Dr Sydney Brenner, as part of his 2002 Nobel prize.

The fellowship is awarded jointly by the Academy of Science of South Africa and the US National Academies to South African-based researchers who show advanced research skills and a highly creative approach.

Martin (36) is based at the Institute of Infectious Diseases and Molecular Medicine (IIDMM), in the HIV laboratory of Professor Caroline Williamson and the bioinformatics unit.

His research focuses on the process of genetic mixing called "recombination", which takes place during sexual reproduction in most species, including humans.

Recombination is a natural preventative mechanism designed to offset errors, such as genetic disorders, that may be inherited through the mixing of parental genes.

It has been found that viruses, although they reproduce asexually, recombine much faster than higher organisms like humans, and evolve at a much quicker rate.

This also enables disease-causing viruses to spread across host species boundaries and develop a resistance to drugs.

Martin will use bioinformatics to trace virus recombination patterns to pinpoint areas that could be potential targets for "recombination- resistant' drugs or vaccines.

This research is important in the light of the role that recombination plays in the evolution of viruses such as influenza and HIV.

For example, after infecting a person's body, the HIV virus undergoes many genetic changes due in part to recombination. These changes enable viruses to stay one step ahead of that person's immune system.

Although it is generally understood how virus genetic changes occur, it is yet to be established why certain recombination events produce active viruses while others don't.

Shedding some light on this mystery could help in developing better vaccines and drugs in the future.

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