UCT TB researcher Grant Theron awarded prestigious NRF P rating

28 August 2015 | Story by Newsroom
Dr Grant Theron.
Dr Grant Theron.

The National Research Foundation (NRF) recently recognised the work of senior researcher in the Department of Medicine Dr Grant Theron for his work in tuberculosis (TB) diagnosis and transmission, by awarding him a P rating. This prestigious rating is awarded to young researchers, normally under 35 years old, recognised by reviewers as having demonstrated the potential to become an international leader within their field. Theron will be the seventh P-rated researcher at UCT.

Theron has already established himself as a leader in the field of TB diagnostics. His work on the evaluation of a DNA-based TB diagnostic test called Xpert has influenced national and global health policy; it includes a four-country randomised controlled trial that was the first to demonstrate its clinical impact and feasibility at the point-of-care when done by non-technical staff. TB diagnosis still relies predominantly on sputum microscopy (looking for the TB bacilli under a microscope) and chest X-rays, a system that misses 40 to 60% of TB cases. The introduction of Xpert into TB hotspots, such as prisons and mines, could enable earlier diagnosis of drug-resistant TB. Theron has also done work that helped establish Xpert as the new standard of care for extra-pulmonary TB.

Theron's work so far has attracted international awards and invitations to chair and speak at international conferences. His work, conducted through the Lung Infection and Immunity Unit and the Department of Medicine, has also been incorporated into policy documents compiled by the World Health Organisation. Theron was recently honoured at the NSTF Awards in the TW Kambule Emerging Researcher category. In 2014 he was selected as one of the Mail & Guardian's Top 200 Young South Africans and he holds career development awards from the Wellcome Trust (UK) and the Medical Research Council (South Africa).

Interim Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences Professor Gregory Hussey describes Theron as an imaginative and innovative researcher: "Grant has already made a significant contribution to the field of TB research in South Africa – a field that is of particular relevance considering it is still the most common cause of death in South Africa and as we face the ever-growing risk of multi-drug resistant strains of TB."

Theron earned his doctorate in 2010, focusing on the genetic engineering of bacterial strains for use as food supplements. After his PhD, Theron says he wanted to focus on issues of human health, rather than projects that assisted companies in being profitable.

His PhD supervisor, Professor Sharon Reid, says he was always enthusiastic, interested and not afraid of hard work. "Although Grant was keen on scientific discovery in general, he was always particularly interested in the application of science in both biotechnology and medicine," she says. "He has embraced his new field with similar enthusiasm and dedication and fully deserves this new rating."

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