Research and Internationalisation

19 October 2022 Read time >10 min.
Prof Sue Harrison. <b>Photo</b> Lerato Maduna.
Prof Sue Harrison. Photo Lerato Maduna.

Research and Internationalisation

For the University of Cape Town (UCT) research, 2021 was a year of continued adaption to the challenges and opportunities presented by COVID-19 and focusing our sights on UCT’s Vision 2030 strategy. This combination allowed us to move into a place of renewed focus and energy and a new shared vision for the future. While we continued to rally and respond to varying lockdown levels, ongoing uncertainty and the urgency of our pandemic-focused research initiatives, we simultaneously set our sights on Vision 2030 and the path to achieving it.

As Vision 2030 calls us to do, we came together in 2021 to “unleash human potential for a fair and just society” and enhance our research agenda towards “unleashing knowledge in, for, and from Africa to redefine and co-create a sustainable global future”.

One of the major events of the year signalled our commitment to addressing the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in, for, and from Africa, in line with the aspirations of the African Union’s Agenda 2063 for “The Africa we want”. The online International Summit on the SDGs in Africa, hosted by UCT in September 2021, centred on the need to accelerate an Africa-centric approach to moving towards sustainable development in Africa and achieving Agenda 2063 and the associated UN SDGs.

We brought together a variety of thinkers and doers – academia, government, business, non-profit organisations, and broader civil society – from the continent and the rest of the world, with the aim of tackling Africa’s greatest challenges with innovative solutions. Some 1 085 delegates from 84 countries – 40 in Africa – registered and contributed to a rich fabric of outcomes.

Together, they helped us create a strong focus on Africa to launch action-oriented collaborative thematic tracks extending beyond the summit and driving our research agenda.

The pandemic brought home starkly the impact of the continent being a follower in the technology agenda and highlighted the importance of discovery science and its translation into impact, economy and quality of life. In a live event, held on 26 October 2021, we celebrated the reach, diversity and excellence of UCT’s research focused on vaccines in Africa from Africa and for Africa, bringing into crystal-clear focus the challenges and opportunities associated with developing vaccine-manufacturing capability on the continent. The latter was addressed by a keynote address from Patrick Soon-Shiong of NantWorks and a panel discussion of leaders in Africa’s vaccine initiatives, leaders of commercial vaccine facilities in South Africa and academics.

Also, during 2021, the Institute for Humanities in Africa (HUMA) launched its future hospitals programme, bringing together the role of artificial intelligence (AI) and the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) with the ethics of healthcare in Africa. The introductory workshop in March 2021 has been followed by webinars and discussions, building a Carnegie-funded programme across Africa.

While the pandemic resulted in challenging conditions for a number of our research themes, experiencing a hiatus in access to study sites and curtailed research funding, COVID-19-related research has been well funded, energetic and demanding, highlighting the need for differing research stimulation across various research tracks.

UCT is proud to have been recognised in many ways during 2021 and we celebrate the accolades and achievements of our researchers. These include receiving prestigious awards and rankings, making progress in key research areas, and being recognised by core research partners as a university to invest in.

UCT continues to rank highest in Africa across the five major rankings. For the first time, we were ranked in the Times Higher Education (THE) Impact rankings, which assesses performance with respect to the SDGs in terms of research, life on campus, and university policies, ranking in the top 100 for SDG 1 – no poverty (40th), SDG 5 – gender equality (58th), and SDG 10 – reduced inequalities (94th).

In global subject rankings, UCT ranked particularly well for the following:

  • 9th in development studies (Quacquarelli Symonds)
  • 13th in infectious diseases (US News)
  • 23rd in environmental science and engineering (ShanghaiRanking Global Ranking of Academic Subjects [GRAS])
  • 39th in public, environmental and occupational health (US News)
  • 47th in immunology (US News)
  • 47th in sports science (GRAS)
  • 48th in oceanography (GRAS).

Despite this, there were many challenges in the year. I commend every person who dealt with these challenges daily to contribute to UCT’s research excellence and the achievements I have mentioned and those I weren’t able to cover. These include researchers at all levels – from postgraduate level through to early career, mid-career, established and on to our emeritus professors – support and administrative staff, our partner organisations, donors and funders, and my colleagues in the UCT executive.

You all played a part in navigating the university’s research endeavour through a global pandemic and onwards to the journey towards Vision 2030. I look forward to taking the next steps on this path with you.

Professor Sue Harrison
Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Internationalisation

Investment critical for lucrative plant-based vaccine market

Photo Pixabay

During 2021, UCT scientists reported the successful expression of the near-full length SARS-CoV-2 spike vaccine in plants.

This work leveraged recent advances in the Biopharming Research Unit (BRU) to produce viral surface glycoproteins in plants by providing elements of the human intracellular folding machinery. This strategy forms part of a new research initiative to develop novel approaches to producing vaccines against emerging viruses in plants.

Typically, modern virus vaccines are produced in mammalian cells, which is expensive and requires the kind of infrastructure that is mostly absent in developing countries. This makes plant-based vaccine manufacturing an increasingly attractive alternative, as both the infrastructure and the costs to scale up production are potentially lower.

This recent work is proof-of-concept that BRU’s technology platform can be applied to producing a vaccine for an emerging virus, like SARS-CoV-2. This builds on previous success in expressing HIV-1 Env protein and several other viral glycoproteins.

“With sufficient investment and development, we could actually have a vaccine platform to service the needs of not only South Africa, but also the continent,” says UCT Postdoctoral Scientist and lead author on the paper, Emmanuel Margolin, stressing that plants offer a potentially cheaper, faster, safer and highly scalable means of producing pharmaceutically relevant proteins.

UCT and Sasol’s significant step toward CO2 hydrogenation technology

hydrogenation technology
Photo Unsplash.

A team of researchers from the Catalysis Institute at UCT and integrated energy and chemical company, Sasol, made advancements in the use of commercial iron catalysts produced cheaply and on a large scale by Sasol. These will enable conversion of biogenetically derived carbon dioxide (CO2) and green hydrogen directly to a variety of green chemicals and jet fuel.

According to the researchers, the iron catalyst can achieve CO2 conversions greater than 40%, producing ethylene and light olefins that can be used as chemical feedstocks, and significant quantities of kerosene‑range hydrocarbons (jet fuel).

For decades, Sasol has been using its Fischer-Tropsch (FT) technology to convert low-grade coal and gas into synthetic fuels and chemicals.

Professor Michael Claeys, the director of the Catalysis Institute, said: “The partnership brings together Sasol’s established expertise around FT catalysis and synthesis gas conversion, and UCT’s modelling and in‑situ characterisation capabilities.”

This development is a significant step towards the implementation of CO2 hydrogenation technology in South Africa.

Africans lack basic facilities to curb COVID-19

Photo Pixabay.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments across the globe implemented public health measures such as wearing masks, strict lockdowns, physical distancing and regular handwashing. However, research from 54 countries across the continent revealed that almost 900 million people lack on-site water, and 283 million people live in households with more than three people to a room.

UCT’s Professor Murray Leibbrandt, the director of the African Centre for Inequality Research (ACEIR), and postgraduate researcher Bongai Munguni were co-authors on the study. They collaborated with researchers from the University of Bristol’s Poverty Institute; the University of California, Los Angeles’ Fielding School of Public Health; and other international research groups to investigate the feasibility of non-pharmacological public health interventions in low-resource settings in Africa.

The findings, based on socio-economic data gathered in previously conducted studies, show how seemingly simple measures have been all but impossible to implement and maintain for many Africans.

Ground-breaking UCT study on how TB is spread

Photo Pix4Free.

New research from UCT challenges the assumption that coughing is the primary driver of tuberculosis (TB) transmission.

The findings came from a team based in the Molecular Mycobacteriology Research Unit in the Faculty of Health Sciences’ Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine, that used the purpose-built Respiratory Aerosol Sampling Chamber to catch and analyse bioaerosols generated by TB patients while they breathed and coughed.

The researchers found that a cough produces around three times more M. tuberculosis – the agent that causes TB – than a breath. But, based on an estimate of around 22 000 breaths per day compared to a maximum of 550 coughs, they conclude that breathing contributes more than 90% of the daily aerosolised M. tuberculosis.

This suggests that normal breathing contributes significantly to TB transmission and that TB transmission by asymptomatic individuals – those who don’t have a persistent cough – is possible.

Nolundi Luwaya focuses on rural women to drive land reform

rural drive
Photo Supplied.

The Land and Accountability Research Centre (LARC) based in the Department of Public Law at UCT, played a significant part in the Ingonyama Trust case in KwaZulu‑Natal regarding the Trust’s charging of rent on communal land, which had an adverse effect (mostly on women) in rural KwaZulu‑Natal.

The Pietermaritzburg High Court made a landmark ruling on 11 June 2021 when it declared the Ingonyama Trust had acted unlawfully and in violation of the Constitution by giving residential leases to those who were true owners of the land in terms of Zulu customary law. LARC provided significant research support in the case.

It was the work of Nolundi Luwaya, the director of LARC, that led to its involvement. In 2015, LARC researchers found that the Trust was downgrading people’s land rights, and LARC was part of a collective challenging the legality of this practice.

The court ordered the Ingonyama Trust to refund all lease money paid and ordered the granting of rights in terms of applicable provincial legislation.

Minimum unit price on alcohol could substantially reduce heavy drinking

heavy drinking
Photo Pexels.

A study published by UCT researchers in the South African Medical Journal revealed that if the government were to implement a minimum unit price on alcohol products, it could substantially decrease heavy drinking. The minimum unit price could also impact occasional heavy‑drinking and intermediate-drinking households.

Dr Grieve Chelwa from the UCT Graduate School of Business collaborated on the study with Professor Corné van Walbeek, the director of the Research Unit on the Economics of Excisable Products.

The team also found that the minimum unit price might have more of an immediate effect than an excise tax. This is because it would target low‑priced products, which are disproportionately consumed by regular heavy‑drinking households. While alcohol plays an important economic role in South Africa, the country has a significant problem with alcohol abuse.

“Both excise taxes and a minimum unit price on alcohol are important components of an effective alcohol policy. The World Health Organization [WHO] encourages countries to use both. The impact of an excise tax is more broad-based, whereas a minimum unit price is specifically targeted on drinkers who consume cheap alcohol, which tend to be the heavy drinkers,” said Van Walbeek.

UCT joins forces with NASA for biodiversity survey

Photo Pixabay.

A collaborative campaign, dubbed BioSCape, will see scientists from the United States and South Africa working together to map marine, freshwater, and terrestrial species and ecosystems within South Africa’s Greater Cape floristic region. Dr Jasper Slingsby, a senior lecturer in plant ecology and global change biology at UCT, is part of the project team coordinating the rollout starting in 2023.

“The campaign involves NASA coming here with two of their planes and the latest and greatest in sensor technology to capture hyperspectral images of key focal areas within the region,” he said.

Apart from collecting ultraviolet, visual and thermal imagery, the height and structure of vegetation will also be measured using light distance and ranging (LiDAR) technology. Satellites will gather additional data, while teams on the ground make observations at locations of particular interest, logging any plants and animals they find.

Using this data, the team will map the region’s biodiversity, providing estimates of the distribution and abundance of species and of the boundaries of ecosystems. Ultimately, the campaign will help scientists understand the structure, function and composition of ecosystems in the study area.

The project has implications that go beyond science, said Slingsby. “NASA is a household name that conjures images of rockets and walking on the moon, yet they want to come to the Cape. When most people think of botany or zoology, they don’t imagine you could end up working with NASA, but there you are!”

New partnership with UCT-based H3D Foundation to strengthen African drug research

African drug research
Photo Getty Images.

The H3D Foundation (the H3D-F) at UCT and a global pharmaceutical body – the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) – have formed a three-year partnership that is set to ensure and accelerate medicinal drug research and discovery in Africa.

“These two organisations are coming together within the IFPMA’s context or objective of building an innovation culture on the continent … we are announcing a three-year partnership aimed at strengthening capacity for health innovation on the continent,” said Belinda Bhoodoo of the IFPMA’s Africa Engagement Committee. IFPMA represents research-based biopharmaceutical companies, as well as regional and global pharmaceutical manufacturer associations.

“We will combine forces to focus on driving capacity strengthening for drug discovery and development in Africa by scaling existing initiatives and identifying new opportunities for younger and mid-career scientists in the region.”

The partnership is the brainchild of Professor Kelly Chibale, the founder and director of H3D and chairman and CEO of the H3D Foundation, as well as a professor of organic chemistry at UCT – and the IFPMA’s director of Innovation Policy, Guilherme Cintra.

New platform raises awareness on the plight of migrant women

migrant women
Photo Getty Images.

A new platform – of which UCT Professor Floretta Boonzaier was a part – brings the public closer to the stories of women who migrate, detailing how they endure multiple forms of intersecting violence.

Professor Boonzaier and the international team of researchers collected testimonies from more than 100 women worldwide to shed light on how gender affects migration and to highlight the resilience of those who seek a new life far from home.

The stories were grouped into eight case studies that cover each stage of the migration process, from the often-dangerous journeys women take, to their acceptance or rejection by their destination country, and their eventual resettlement or return.

“Zoning in on the narratives of women who have migrated and the precarity of their positions in the countries they migrate to is important for showing how, globally, women endure multiple forms of intersecting violence,” shared Boonzaier. “This violence takes many forms from structural and systemic violence to physical and symbolic violence.”

T cells face off against variants to boost COVID-19 immunity

T cells
Photo Pexels.

Central players in the body’s immune systems, T cells can mount a substantial defence to prevent severe illness, hospitalisation, and death from variants of COVID-19, said researchers Dr Catherine Riou and Associate Professor Wendy Burgers from UCT’s Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine (IDM).

In a pre-print article, they analysed the role of T cells in responding to the Beta variant; however, the authors predicted similar results with Delta and other future variants. This is because the T cell response to infection with SARS-CoV-2 is far more multi-faceted than that of antibodies, providing a significant extra layer of protection against disease.

Growing fears around the resistance of COVID-19 variants to antibody defences has sparked increased interest in the role of T cells. As a result, the team has followed up this research with testing for T-cell response to the Delta variant.

Regardless of which COVID-19 variant is involved, Burgers and Riou are confident that existing vaccines will continue to protect populations from severe disease and hospitalisation.

“If a person becomes infected or gets vaccinated against the original strain rather than any variant, we’ve shown that it’s very likely the vaccine will induce a similar response to Delta, should that person encounter it,” said Riou.

ACDI presents framework for complex climate change risk assessment

Photo Pexels.

Researchers from UCT’s Africa Climate and Development Initiative (ACDI) led a global team of 21 climate risk scholars to better understand and inform decision-making around climate change risks in Africa and globally by examining how the drivers of risk interact.

Published in the journal One Earth, it builds on existing risk frameworks with the hope that the guidelines can help decision-makers, managers and researchers understand the inherent complexity of climate change.

“This is important because policymakers may worry about the risk of implementing a response as much, or more so, than the risk the response aims to reduce,” said Dr Nick Simpson, the lead author of the paper and a postdoctoral fellow at the ACDI.

“This can lead to inaction, at the very time when we need to be most active and investing heavily in our response to climate change.”

Serendipitous discovery leads scientists to new galaxies in the sky

new galaxies
Photo Wikimedia Commons.

A team of scientists representing three South African universities, including UCT, were pleasantly surprised when their usual studies of the sky revealed a rather unusual find: 20 previously unidentified galaxies.

The serendipitous revelation was detected by members of the MeerKAT International GHz Tiered Extragalactic Exploration (MIGHTEE) project team. This team of scientists study the demographics, evolution and condition of galaxies in a variety of environments. Their recent, ultra-cool discovery was made possible by the ingenuity of the MeerKAT telescope – the South African precursor telescope to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

“The discovery cements the leading role that UCT plays in many MeerKAT projects, which provide a rich environment for discoveries and research excellence to thrive,” said the project’s Dr Bradley Frank from the UCT Department of Astronomy.

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