A UCT researcher has won a prestigious Wellcome Intermediate Fellowship in Public Health and Tropical Medicine in recognition of his work to decode the secret behind the natural immunity to tuberculosis (TB) present in some healthcare workers.
Dr Muki Shey is currently conducting research at the Wellcome Centre for Infectious Diseases Research in Africa (CIDRI-Africa), in UCT’s Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine (IDM), to characterise specific immune cells that could prevent Mycobacterium tuberculosis infection. He believes his work could ultimately lead to the development of a new prophylactic vaccine.
While M. tuberculosis is extremely infectious, some healthcare workers who are regularly exposed to the disease in their working environment never contract TB. Shey believes this natural resistance could be due to a variation in the numbers and function of so-called mucosal-associated invariant T (MAIT) cells. Once these MAIT cells come into contact with bacteria-infected cells, they rapidly produce molecules that can directly kill these cells, so limiting or preventing infection.
An excited Shey said he kept having to pinch himself “to make sure I was not dreaming” when he received the news about the prestigious award.
“This will enable me to train other young scientists, and establish myself as an independent researcher focusing on the role of MAIT cells and immunogenetics in resistance to M. tuberculosis infection in individuals with high occupational exposure.”
In spite of existing protective measures, healthcare workers still have a more-than-twofold higher risk of TB infection compared to the general population.
“And we need to find additional ways to protect them,” he said.
“We need to find additional ways to protect [healthcare workers].”
Shey will recruit healthcare workers from South African TB hospitals to participate in the study. They will be asked to provide blood and lung fluid samples that will be used in laboratory analyses of MAIT-cell frequency and behaviour.
His current research at CIDRI-Africa is focused on factors contributing to mortality in HIV-associated TB, and on cellular interactions between antigen-presenting cells and MAIT cells in healthy HIV-infected and HIV-TB co-infected individuals. He considers his research niche to lie at the interface of basic and clinical research, where research findings can be translated from the laboratory to the clinic and vice versa.
Shey obtained his PhD in Clinical Sciences and Immunology from UCT in 2012. He investigated the effect of age and genetics on innate immune responses to the BCG vaccine, the only licensed vaccine against TB. He found that both these factors affect responses to the BCG, and could be considered in the rational design of novel vaccines against tuberculosis.
He has also advanced the understanding of the contribution of inflammation to HIV-acquisition risk in women, and of T-cell response to novel TB vaccines.
Shey is committed to continuing his research on diseases of relevance to Africa, and to establishing a solid base at UCT which will contribute to postgraduate and postdoctoral training, as well as setting the national and international agenda for strategies in TB prevention.
The Wellcome Trust identifies priority areas in which they can offer focused, intensive support in cases where there are real opportunities to transform lives. They also help drive reform to ensure that ideas reach their full potential.
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