The South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) has awarded two UKZN scientists with Gold Medals for their innovative scientific contributions to the fields of HIV and Tuberculosis research.

UKZN’s Frank Tanser and Thumbi Ndung’u, who both hold Professorships in the College of Health Sciences (CHS) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and are researchers at AHRI, were presented the medals at the 2017 SAMRC Scientific Merit Awards gala dinner in Cape Town recently. The Gold Medal is awarded annually to established senior scientists who have made key scientific contributions that have impacted on the health of people.

Ndung’u’ s research is ultimately focussed on designing a vaccine or cure strategy for two of South Africa’s major killer diseases, HIV and TB. He works to understand how the immune system fights off these diseases, and how these pathogens in turn evade or adapt to continuous immune pressure. He has made seminal contributions to our understanding of how the immune system is able to partially control HIV, demonstrating how genetic factors and viral factors interact to determine the clinical outcome of a patient. He has also identified viral genetic factors that are linked to HIV transmission and how the disease progresses. Professor Ndung’u also has a special interest in capacity building for biomedical research in Africa, and heads up the sub-Saharan African Network for TB/HIV Research Excellence, which strives to empower African scientists.

‘I am delighted to receive this award and recognition! In reality, this is an award not just for me but for my entire team. I am blessed to have had generous mentors, incredibly gifted colleagues and students that have made my research journey enjoyable and rewarding. Most of all, I have enjoyed absolute and solid support from my family and friends who keep reminding me to laugh and smile more through life,’ said Ndung’u.

Tanser’s research aims to evaluate and design intervention strategies to drive back HIV and its negative consequences in communities hardest hit by the epidemic. His pivotal work over the past 20 years has provided substantial insights into the evolving and dynamic nature of the HIV epidemic and its key drivers, informing HIV prevention and treatment efforts in sub-Saharan Africa. His research into the population-level impacts of the antiretroviral therapy (ART) roll-out has led to wide-reaching and rapid changes to government policy on how ART programmes in South Africa are designed and implemented. In particular, a seminal study he published in one of the world’s leading scientific journals – Science – was the first to show that nurse-led and decentralised HIV programmes in rural areas could be successful in reducing HIV transmission at the population level.

‘I am absolutely thrilled and deeply honoured to receive such a prestigious award and I accept it on behalf of my excellent team of researchers and collaborators.  I also want to thank my wonderful family for their incredible support over the past 20 years. Without their unconditional support, none of this would have been possible,’ Tanser expressed.

Ndung’u is also the South African Research Chair in Systems Biology of HIV/AIDS, a Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology Research Group Leader, Adjunct Professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, and the Scientific Director at UKZN’s HIV Pathogenesis Programme.

Tanser additionally holds an honorary professorship at University College London (UCL). He currently serves on the board of The Lancet HIV and is a member of the International Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee to the Executive Director of UNAIDS, Michel Sidibé.

Words: Lihle Sosibo and Hannah Keal