The DST/NRF South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) Chair in Sustainable Malaria Control at the University of Pretoria (UP) has just been approved for another five-year cycle. It has also been upgraded from the Tier 2 level to Tier 1*. This truly trans-disciplinary Chair is hosted in the Department of Biochemistry in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences and forms part of the University of Pretoria Institute for Sustainable Malaria Control (UP ISMC).
The Chair was initially awarded to UP in 2013 as it is the leading institution in the country with a focus on all aspects of malaria research directly influencing South Africa's National Department of Health Malaria Elimination Strategy.
The Chair harnesses expertise in malaria biology in South Africa to enable sustained malaria control in the African context. Prof Lyn-Marie Birkholtz has been the incumbent of the Chair since its inception and she also leads the Parasite Control Cluster within the UP ISMC. The research programme undertaken by Prof Birkholtz's team is setting trends both nationally and internationally, and is uniquely trans-disciplinary. Its research focus is on the interplay between parasite biology and drug discovery associated with host-parasite interactions, with the aim of predicting therapeutic outcomes and ultimately delivering novel interventions useful to the malaria control and elimination agenda.
The Chair's programme has been very successful, not only in terms of research deliverables, but also infrastructural and human capacity development at UP. Highlights of the research include contributing to the first African-borne clinical candidate antimalarial to be useful in elimination agendas. The Chair leads the South African Malaria Transmission-blocking Consortium, of which the CSIR and the University of the Witwatersrand are also members. The Consortium's focus is on describing the potential of new chemical compounds to be useful to malaria elimination strategies. The partners work together to examine whether new antimalarial candidates that may cure an infection could also be used to block transmission of the malaria parasite from humans to mosquitoes. Malaria elimination will become a reality only once the transmission cycle is broken. With the Chair renewal, the next five years will see an expansion of these capabilities and the establishment of a regional centre of excellence in malaria parasite biology and drug discovery. The Chair closely associates with other Chairs including the Chair in Drug Discovery at the University of Cape Town (Prof K Chibale) and the Chair in Medical Entomology and Vector Control at the University of the Witwatersrand (Prof M Coetzee). This has resulted in the establishment of a Community of Practice on Malaria Elimination, funded by the NRF.
The Chair's programme expanded to a total of 31 members, including 24 postgraduate students, three postdoctoral fellows, four staff scientists and one young co-investigator who is being mentored in the programme. In this way, a new generation of African scientists are being trained in parasite biology and drug discovery.
According to Prof Tiaan de Jager, Director of the UP ISMC, the high-impact research of local and international interest done in the SARChI Chair is building much-needed capacity and will assist Africa in its elimination agenda. He added that the involvement of the SARChI Chair in trans-disciplinary research is unique and gives the UP ISMC a competitive advantage.
* Research Chairs are established at Tier 1 or Tier 2 level based on the candidate's research track record and standing, and his or her track record for training postgraduate students and postdoctoral fellows. Tier 1 Chairs are for established researchers who are recognised internationally as leaders in their fields and/or have received international recognition for their research contributions. Tier 2 Chairs are for established researchers with the potential to achieve international recognition for their research contributions in the next five to ten years.