Kenyan researcher wins prestigious international fellowship at UCT

22 June 2015 | Story by Newsroom

Dr Nadia Chanzu will be investigating why HIV-positive pregnant women on antiretroviral therapy are at particular risk of pre-term births, while on a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at UCT, sponsored by the AXA Research Fund.

Nearly one million babies died in 2013 due to complications related to premature (pre-term) birth, according to World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates. For HIV-infected mothers, the risk of giving birth prematurely is extremely high, putting these babies at risk of increased episodes of illness and death. In order to develop alternative therapies to counter this risk, scientists need a better understanding of the delicate immune balance between an HIV-positive mother and her developing baby. It is to do exactly this that the AXA Research Fund awarded Dr Nadia Chanzu, currently a research scientist at the Gertrude's Children's Hospital in Kenya, a prestigious two-year junior (postdoctoral) fellowship at UCT's Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine.

The AXA Research Fund, the research-funding branch of the global insurance brand, seeks to contribute to a greater understanding and prevention of risk worldwide, including environmental, life and socio-economic risk. Fellowships are one of the instruments through which they attempt to achieve this aim. Chanzu is the first African researcher at an African university to be awarded this highly competitive and prestigious fellowship.

The AXA Scientific Board, in awarding the fellowship to Chanzu, described her as a "very promising young scientist" with "significant potential".

"It is a great honour," says Chanzu, who graduated among the top of her class in medical biochemistry from the University of Nairobi in Kenya, completed her master's degree in biomedical science at Kingston University in London (UK) and went on to complete her PhD at the University of Nairobi Institute of Tropical and Infectious Diseases with a grant award from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Canada. Chanzu is also a graduate of the prestigious Canadian Institutes of Health Research's International Infectious Diseases and Global Health Training Programme (IID & GHTP), which sponsors exceptional PhD trainees across Canada, Colombia, Kenya and India.

"I will use this time to improve my knowledge, skills and experience and eventually contribute towards the advancement of the research agenda in my own country."

Thirty-five million people around the world are HIV positive, according to WHO statistics: of those, nearly 71% live in sub-Saharan Africa, making Chanzu's research particularly relevant on the continent.

Today HIV can be successfully managed with the use of anti-retroviral therapy (ART): however, says Chanzu, the ART exposure, along with the HIV, appears to increase the risk of premature birth.

"The placenta is the only link between the developing child and its mother," she explains. "But because a baby will inherit some components from its father – components that are foreign to the mother – the baby and the mother are at risk of rejecting one another."

A successful pregnancy therefore requires a delicate immune balance between mother and baby – a balance that HIV and ART exposure may disrupt.

"My research aims to identify some of the altered immune mechanisms within the placentae of HIV-infected women, in comparison with those of HIV-negative mothers, to better understand the immune basis of pre-term births in HIV-positive women."

Chanzu's research will have a direct impact on public health, hopefully providing a foundation to inform alternative therapies and alleviate the risks associated with pregnancy in HIV-infected mothers. She says South Africa, and UCT in particular, is the ideal place for her to continue this research.

"South Africa has developed into a hub of groundbreaking HIV-prevention research with some of the leading global infectious diseases experts residing at the University of Cape Town," she says. "Having the opportunity to undertake the AXA Fellowship at UCT at the Division of Immunology, under the mentorship of Professor Clive Gray and Dr Heather Jaspan, will give me access to cutting-edge technology and expertise that is currently lacking in my home country, Kenya."

Story by Natalie Simon

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