SARChI Chair awarded Newton Fellowship grant

Prof Adrienne Edkins
Prof Adrienne Edkins

Rhodes University SARChI Chair for Molecular and Cellular Biology of the Eukaryotic Stress Response Professor Adrienne Edkins, has been awarded a 2018 Newton Advanced Fellowship grant of £101 000 (which is close to R2 million) from the Academy of Medical Sciences. 

The grant programme, which is set to commence on 1 December 2018, provides opportunities for people in developing countries to foster long-term research partnerships with people in the United Kingdom (UK).

In Prof Edkins’ case, the programme is connecting her with a top researcher at Leeds University, Professor Adrian Whitehouse, who is an expert in the molecular biology of a virus that causes Kaposi sarcoma (KS) in AIDS patients, called the Kaposi sarcoma herpes virus (KSHV).

“My research group looks at how cells cope with the biological challenges of stress and how that contributes to a cancer phenotype. We have some preliminary data to suggest that one of the proteins we’ve done a lot of work on, STIP1, might be involved in the biology of KSHV, and so our work might be linked to potential therapeutic approaches,” explained Prof Edkins.

There are currently very few treatments available for KS, despite it being the most common cancer in people with AIDS worldwide, and the most prevalent cancer overall in some sub-Saharan countries.

With KSHV being an opportunistic infection, it takes hold of immunosuppressed people and the cancer develops. “However, not all AIDS patients get KS, so there is still a lot of information we don’t know about the basic process between having the virus and developing the cancer,” said Prof Edkins.

A large portion of the grant is to fund collaborative research exchanges between Prof Edkins’ team and Prof Whitehouse that aim to understand and describe the role of STIP1 in the biology of the virus and how that contributes to the cancer. “My students and I will go to Prof Whitehouse’s laboratory in the UK to get training in how to culture these cancer cells, and to do high-end proteomics.”

This knowledge transfer will then be brought back to Rhodes University, and a portion of the grant will be used for equipment that will allow Prof Edkins and her team to establish the molecular virology and cancer culture models in South Africa.

“So there’s a big capacity development component to this grant. We’ll be getting training, facilities, and reagents. Basically, everything we need to be able to study the biology of KSHV,” explained Prof Edkins. “The idea is that, by the end of the grant in 2021, we will be independent researchers in this field and be able to compete in securing additional grants for future funding.”

Prof Edkins, who has held the position of Director of the Biomedical Biotechnology Research Unit (BioBRU) since 2011, also won the DST South African Women in Science (SAWiSA) Award for Distinguished Young Scientist in the Natural/Engineering Sciences in August 2018.