University of Pretoria researchers receive prestigious grants for cutting-edge cancer research

Two University of Pretoria (UP) researchers are among nine researchers in South Africa who have received funding grants from the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) as part of the Strategic Health Innovation Partnerships (SHIP) programme. The grants are worth approximately R3 million each and are to be used over a three-year period.

Professor Robert Millar and Dr Iman van den Bout, academics and researchers of the Centre for Neuroendocrinology in UP’s Faculty of Health Sciences, have received funding to support their research into cutting-edge solutions for the diagnosis and treatment of prostate cancer and breast cancer respectively.

Professor Tiaan de Jager, Dean of UP’s Faculty of Health Sciences, said he is delighted that two researchers from the Faculty are part of producing such important work. “At the Faculty of Health Sciences, we pride ourselves on using our research to solve today’s pressing issues in the communities we work and live in. Additionally, I am proud to hear that our Centre for Neuroendocrinology has received two grants of about R3 million each which will go into finding innovative and lasting solutions to the current challenges facing the diagnosis and treatment of cancer in SA.”

The announcement was made today (8 Feb) at a virtual ceremony. The MRC SHIP is a partnership between the SAMRC and the Department of Science and Technology that funds and manages innovative projects focused on the development of new drugs, treatments, vaccines, medical devices and prevention strategies. This partnership provides life-saving innovations to the health industry and the South African public through involvement in developing new and improved treatment options.

An A-rated scientist with over 450 peer review publications, Prof Millar will continue his lifelong work by using the grant to test a new way to diagnose and stratify prostate cancer among South Africans, using a 'liquid biopsy' to improve outcomes.

“In South Africa, the age-standardised prostate mortality rate is one of the highest in the world. There is currently no systematic prostate cancer screening program in South Africa within the state-run healthcare system,” Professor Millar explained. “The standard diagnostic test for prostate cancer in South Africa consists of digital rectal examination and prostate specific antigen (PSA) and sometimes prostate biopsy. These tests are, however, characterised by high false-positive and false-negative values, leading to under- and over-diagnosis and consequent harm to patients, and increased costs to the healthcare system. My aim is to show that by utilising the novel state-of-the-art non-invasive genomic technology quantifying tumour mRNA in blood, PROSTATest and NETest, in South African black men, we can improve diagnosis and treatment selection and reduce costs to the healthcare system. Importantly, these tests have demonstrated the potential to identify new therapies for advanced prostate cancers which are not responsive to the major treatment –  androgen deprivation therapy – thus addressing the SHIP call for a ‘pharmacogenomics approach to failed therapies.’”

For Dr van den Bout this project forms part of work that began 20 years ago. He will use his grant to initiate and develop the first breast cancer organoid biobank, which will be used to develop better prediction tools for South African women's response to standard chemotherapy regimens offered in the public health system.

“As I keep developing the project, I feel very strongly that this project will establish a resource and knowledge base that will be of immense value to local cancer scientists in their quest to improve breast cancer patient care in our country,” Dr van den Bout said. “It is already known that a significant percentage of African breast cancer patients that are treated with the standard chemotherapies available in the public health system fail to respond well. In this study we seek to develop a way to test living cells from the tumours of these patients for their reaction to the therapies in the lab, and to see if this will predict how the patient will respond to the treatment. Eventually, we hope that our research will lead to clinical tools with which we can assess each incoming breast cancer patient to determine what therapies will be most effective for them.”

Professor Tawana Kupe, UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal, said the two researchers embody UP’s vision of being the leading research-intensive university on the African continent. “Cancer in South Africa and on the African continent remains one of the most devastating diseases. I am proud that two of our researchers are leading the quest to find lasting and more effective solutions in the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer and prostate cancer. It proves that at UP, we are committed to producing research that is relevant, innovative and that will improve the lives of ordinary people across Africa and the world.”

Watch the video in the sidebar to learn more.


Prof Robert Millar

February 9, 2021

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  • Professor Robert Millar
    Professor Robert (Bob) Millar is the Director of the Centre for Neuroendocrinology at the University of Pretoria (UP). He is also a senior research fellow at the Universities of Cape Town (UCT) and Edinburgh, and Emeritus Professor at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. He was born in South Africa and grew up in Zimbabwe.

    From 1998 to 2011, he was Director of the UK Medical Research Council’s Human Reproductive Sciences Unit at the University of Edinburgh. Upon his return to South Africa, he took up the position of Director of the Mammal Research Institute at UP, with a secondary position as Director of the UCT/MRC Receptor Biology Group.

    Prof Millar’s contributions to science are globally recognised. He received an A-rating from the National Research Foundation in 1990 and four re-ratings at this level in subsequent years. Among other awards, he has received the Wellcome gold medal, the Oppenheimer gold medal, the John F Herschel gold medal – the highest award of the Royal Society of South Africa ­– and the South African Medical Research Council’s platinum medal. He received lifetime achievement awards from the National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)/Billiton and the Society for Endocrinology, Metabolism and Diabetes of South Africa, and is a Bargmann-Scharrer laureate and a Geoffrey Harris laureate.

    Prof Millar has published more than 450 peer-reviewed articles which have been sited more than 30 000 times, and has an H-index of over 90.

    He was the first to determine the biosynthesis and structural variants of gonadotropin-releasing hormone and the cloning of its receptor, which regulates reproduction. These studies underpinned the development of analogues, which now constitute a billion-dollar market for the treatment of infertility, prostate cancer, and women’s diseases such as endometriosis, uterine fibroids and polycystic ovarian syndrome.

    Prof Millar says his life is one of asking questions, discovery and helping others through science and knowledge.

    What is neuroendocrinology?

    It is the field where we try to understand the way in which the brain talks to the body, and the body talks to the brain. Neuroendocrinology is involved in every aspect of homeostasis through a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. Very simple small peptides made here – mostly three to 20 amino acids in length – regulate every aspect of the body, including water and electrolyte balance; thyroid, gonadal and adrenal function; stress; lactation; appetite; growth; and temperature regulation.

    The beauty is that we can easily make these molecules and analogues for therapeutic intervention. I have found it so exciting to design these molecules and show their efficacy. It is a fascinating area. A particular interest of mine in this field is the reproductive aspect, but I have worked in most of the other areas as well.

    What is most rewarding about your career?

    As an academic, I have had the incredible privilege of being paid to ask questions and explore answers to them. I can’t think of anything more fun and fulfilling than that. I have done this my entire life and cannot imagine a better vocation.
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