Dr Patrick Njage of the Department of Food Science at UP and postdoctoral fellow of the Institute for Food, Nutrition and Well-being (IFNuW), was a recipient of the International Union of Food Science and Technology’s (IUFoST) Young Scientist Award for 2014. Alongside seven other outstanding young food scientists from across the world, Njage received the award at the IUFoST’s 17th World Congress of Food Science and Technology (World Food Congress), held in Montreal, Canada from 17 to 21 August.
IUFoST is a country-membership organisation that aims to strengthen the role of food science and technology by helping to secure the world’s food supply and eliminating world hunger. The recipients of these awards are all under 35 years old and are recognised as future leaders in the field of food science research. At this year’s World Food Congress, all the young scientists were given the opportunity to present their research to an international audience. During a series of workshops they were also able to mentor other scientists on, for instance, leadership issues and career development.
Njage was recognised by IUFoST for his research into the ‘Quantitative risk of antimicrobial resistant gene transfer from bacteria in vegetables to the human colon using in-vitro models’ under the supervision of Prof Elna Buys. In simpler terms, Njage used gut models to investigate the role of irrigation water in the transmission of resistant E. coli to lettuce, and its effects in the human gut. While antimicrobial drugs, commonly known as antibiotics, which are found in human medicine and animal food produce, are used to fight bacterial infections, some bacteria have maintained genes that are resistant to these antibiotics. Antibiotic resistance results in antibiotics not having the desired effect on bacteria. Although certain new-generation antibiotics have been effectively used to treat resistant E. coli,these antibiotics are rendered inactive by specific bacterial enzymes.
What makes Njage’s study exemplary is his investigation into the presence of these bacterial enzymes in bacteria that contaminate vegetables, which few researchers have explored before. His study found that E. coli from lettuce showed potential as agents that maintain and transfer resistance genes to potential intra- and extra-intestinal pathogenic E. coli. This research is important as many of these potential carrier vegetables are consumed raw, and some of these strains of E. coli can cause diarrhoea, anaemia, kidney failure and even death in humans. Other strains may cause urinary tract or other infections.
Without efforts to stop the maintenance and transfer of genes that are resistant to such E. coli, Njage fears that we may fall back into a pre-antibiotic era, which will lead to many deaths caused by pathogenic diseases. The discovery of newer-generation antimicrobials to be used against such E. coli seems a less viable solution as several large pharmaceutical companies have left the antibacterial and antifungal therapeutic arenas, which has resulted in limited scientific expertise in the field of antimicrobial discovery and development. Displaying true leadership qualities, Njage called on authorities to take the necessary steps, which are to make funding available for research into the reduction of the proliferation of resistant genes and create awareness of the importance of water hygiene.
Njage intends to do further research at UP’s Department of Food Science through risk modelling using mathematics to predict how genes will be affected by antibiotics, a technique he was trained in during his time spent at the University of Ghent, Belgium.
He also hopes to start his own group to conduct research on a theme related to microbiology and biotechnology. Although he has studied and worked all over the world, Njage says he would be honoured to continue his work at UP because it is an institution that enables research. He is currently supervising several postgraduate theses at UP and other universities, both in and outside South Africa, leading and mentoring individuals who are aspiring to work in the field of food science.