UCT scholars to helm big African health initiatives

03 December 2012 | Story by Newsroom

Two UCT researchers will lead major new projects into rheumatic heart disease and the establishment of an Africa-wide bioinformatics network, part of the newly founded Human Heredity and Health in Africa Consortium (H3Africa).

Prof Bongani Mayosi Assoc Prof Nicola Mulder
Change: Prof Bongani Mayosi and Assoc Prof Nicola Mulder will lead two major health initiatives in Africa

The UCT studies will benefit from inaugural grants, which will be distributed among nine African projects, recently announced by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Wellcome Trust, who together have committed to inject a total of $55 million, nearly R450 million at current exchange rates, into the consortium over the next five years. This is made up of two grants - a commitment of $25 million from the NIH and £13 million (or $20 million) from Wellcome - plus awards have made towards the development of an African bioinformatics network and two pilot biorepositories, banks that will hold biospecimens for future scientific investigation.

Together these investments will spur research into major health concerns around the continent. That money will go towards studies into kidney disease, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, tuberculosis and African sleeping sickness.

The two UCT projects are led, respectively, by Professor Bongani Mayosi, head of the Department of Medicine, and Associate Professor Nicola Mulder of the computational biology group in the Institute of Disease and Molecular Medicine (IIDMM).

Mayosi will oversee the work of the RHDGen Network, which will conduct research into the genetics of rheumatic heart disease, a complication of untreated Streptococcus pyogenes pharyngitis, which affects 3% of school children in Cape Town. Rheumatic fever, which follows infection by S pyogenes in 3 to 5% of susceptible individuals, damages heart valves, and is considered the most common cardiovascular disease of children and young people in developing countries.

In turn, Mulder will serve as principal investigator for the establishment of the H3ABioNet, a pan-African bioinformatics network that will be led by her group at the IIDMM. The network - which will receive $12 million over the five years - will incorporate over 30 institutions with computational expertise in 17 African countries, and will provide critical computational infrastructure and hardware, human resources, tools and computational solutions.

The H3Africa initiative, formally launched in 2010, is designed to help develop expertise among African scientists, foster increased collaboration among African investigators and build the infrastructure for genomics research in Africa.

"H3Africa aims to transform the way science is conducted in Africa, by creating a sustainable research infrastructure and catalysing the use of advanced genomic technologies to improve our understanding of a variety of diseases," said NIH director, Dr Francis Collins.

In addition to funding to projects at Stellenbosch University and the University of the Witwatersrand, grants were also made to institutions and researchers in Benin, Ghana, Nigeria and Uganda.

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