UP Ampath Chair in Human Genetics focuses on better health for all South Africans

Posted on November 27, 2019

Knowledge exchange and innovation to ultimately benefit health economics in South Africa were the main focus as the University of Pretoria (UP) and pathology and laboratory medicine services provider Ampath signed an addendum to a Memorandum of Agreement recently.

This significant agreement, to the value of R15 million, funds the Ampath Chair in Human Genetics at the University, with renowned scientist Professor Liza Bornman as the incumbent of the Chair. Additional funding will be made available by Ampath to also appoint a research manager.

According to UP Vice-Principal: Institutional Planning Professor Anton Ströh, who initiated and led the UP team in negotiations with the former CEO of Ampath Dr Jan van Rooyen and his team, “This Chair will add significant value to the newly established UP Pan African Cancer Research Institute, based in the Faculty of Health Sciences, which will lead transdisciplinary research programmes across faculties at UP. Ampath is a market leader in pathology service delivery in Southern Africa and they employ leading specialists in chemical pathology and clinical genetics who are sensitive to market-related, trends and needs in the pathology industry.”

Dr Mike Forder, current CEO of Ampath Laboratories, said the company was excited about the partnership.

“Ampath is extremely proud to be associated with the University of Pretoria and we look forward to having a significant impact on healthcare for all in South Africa and beyond. As a major pathology service provider within the context of private practice in South Africa, Ampath has always recognised the need to enhance education and research. We now have the opportunity for a significant collaboration between the two entities. The predominant aim of establishing this Chair is to improve the health and wellness of all South Africans and ultimately Africa as a whole,” Dr Forder said.

Prof Bornman further explains the symbiotic relationship between the two partners. “Collaboration with Ampath will drive transnational research and innovation, while UP will provide expertise and facilities to support such research. Ampath will benefit from the academic standing of UP and existent international and local collaborations. UP innovation and initiatives to drive transdisciplinary research to solve complex problems, supported by Future Africa endeavours, will strengthen this partnership.”

She emphasises the importance of postgraduate education as one of the key focuses in this partnership.

“Besides funding the Chair, Ampath will support postdoctoral positions and postgraduate bursaries for young students in science and medicine to participate in collaborative projects across disciplines. Internships for science graduates pursuing registration as health scientists at the Health Professions Council of South Africa and exchange programmes for genetic counsellors in collaboration with the University of Witwatersrand’s Human Genetics are foreseen.”

The different disciplines in the Faculty of Health Sciences and Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences will facilitate interdisciplinary human genetic research through this interfaculty chair. It will contribute to research aiming to improve our understanding of health and disease and to find better diagnostic and prognostic molecular biomarkers of disease. Professor Barend Erasmus, Dean of the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, echoes these sentiments. “Interdisciplinary research is a key competency for research intensive universities like UP, and this Chair is yet another example of how a deep and meaningful partnership between higher education and industry can support the development of such competency.”

According to Professor Tiaan de Jager, Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences, "The agreement between Ampath and UP will create the opportunity for transdisciplinary research and will create opportunities for students and build capacity in the private sector.”

The mutual benefit of access to large capital equipment at UP and Ampath, particularly those used in whole genome sequencing and genotyping, is of great significance and critical to drive innovation. The ultimate significance of this partnership lies in better health for all South Africans through the development of sensitive, specific molecular diagnostics, contributing to sustainable health economics.

Prof Bornman also referred to the current research project of the Ampath Chair, which focuses on prostate cancer in Africa, concentrating on improved diagnostics and prognostics through epigenetic markers in liquid biopsies. The project involving the industry, epidemiology, public health, human genetics, bioinformatics, actuarial sciences and health economics epitomises the mission of Future Africa at UP, namely, transdisciplinary science leadership for innovation. The research is conducted in an African context, but for global benefit.

This project will form part of the Cancer Genomics and Epigenomics programme, one of five proposed research programmes. The other programmes are: Neuroscience and Endocrinology; Human Microbiomics; Genetics and Morphology; as well as Reproductive Biology and Genetics. The establishment of a bio bank for large cohort studies is one of the goals of this partnership.

Another pilot project launched through the partnership involves a cost-benefit analysis of non-invasive prenatal testing for pregnant patients from the government health sector to investigate the feasibility of offering an affordable, relevant service to identify common chromosomal abnormalities to non-medical aid-supported patients.

“I consider my appointment as the Ampath Chair in Human Genetics as an opportunity to apply my expertise. My strength lies in my knowledge of medical biochemistry and human genetics as well as 24 years teaching and research experience in these fields,” Prof Bornman concluded.

More about Prof Bornman

Prior to her appointment at UP on 1 June 2019, she was a full professor in Biochemistry at the University of Johannesburg. Prof Bornman’s SCOPUS H-index is 17 with 831 citations by 733 documents and her Google Scholar H-index is 18 with 1259 citations and an i10-index of 21. She also has a consistent research output in journals of high impact, having published 32 papers in peer-reviewed international journals and three nationally.

While employed by UJ she received the Teaching and Learning Excellence Award of the Faculty of Science in 2018. She also served two terms as Head of the Department of Biochemistry at UJ and regularly serves as reviewer or panel member for the NRF and CANSA to assess grant and NRF evaluation applications. Prof Bornman is also involved in the review of scientists participating in the South African Research Chairs Initiative and has successfully supervised 18 master’s and four doctoral students during the past five years.

- Author Martie Meyer

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