SA scientist wins Gates research grant


    16 November 2012

    The University of Cape Town’s (UCT’s) Professor Janet Hapgood has received a US$100 000 Grand Challenges Explorations (GCE) grant, an initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

    GCE funds individuals worldwide who are taking innovative approaches to global health and development challenges by investing in the early stages of ideas that have the potential to solve some of these problems.

    Hapgood, a member of UCT’s department of molecular and cell biology, will pursue a global health and development research project about the best contraception for women at risk of HIV infection.

    Her project is one of more than 80 GCE Round 9 grants announced by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation at the beginning of November.

    HIV prevalence in young women is high in sub-Saharan Africa and pregnancy poses a significant health risk to both mothers and babies due to mother-to-child transmission, high infant and maternal mortality and socio-economic challenges.

    “A crucial health policy issue is to find the best possible method of contraception that most effectively balances risks with health benefits in these regions,” the university said in a statement on Thursday.

    Study will ‘provide insight, clinical relevance’

    “The research project proposed by Janet Hapgood aims to provide insight as to which is the safest progesterone derivative for contraceptive use by women in high risk areas for HIV infection,” UCT said.

    Contraceptive hormones act by binding to special “receivers” or receptors inside the cell.

    The proposal is based on findings from Hapgood’s group that different contraceptive hormones used in sub-Saharan Africa bind to different subsets of receptors inside the cell to result in differences in the way the cells can mount a defense against the HIV virus.

    She proposes that this may result in some, but not other, contraceptives actually lowering the ability of the body to defend itself against the virus.

    The project involves using human cervical cells from voluntary donors and manipulating them in the laboratory, by adding virus and contraceptives and then measuring markers of the cells’ defense mechanisms, as well as markers of viral infectivity.

    “The results will be clinically relevant and suggest which contraceptives will pose the least possible risk of increasing HIV infection,” it said.

    GCE is a US$100-million initiative launched in 2008 by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. More than 700 people in 45 countries have received GCE grants.

    The grant programme is open to anyone from any discipline and any organisation.

    Initial grants of $100 000 are awarded twice a year. Successful projects have the opportunity to receive a follow-on grant of up to $1-million.

    SAinfo reporter