K-RITH postdoctoral fellow Dr Daniel Muema has been awarded a freestanding National Research Foundation (NRF) fellowship to pursue his work on HIV’s impact on the immune system.

Dr Muema is investigating how HIV manipulates B cells, a type of immune cell, and interferes with the way they are able to produce antibodies to fight off the virus.

His research could have important implications for HIV vaccine design and for effective vaccination against other infections for people living with HIV. Most of the effort going into HIV vaccine research at the moment is to elicit neutralizing antibodies, and it’s therefore vital to understand the mechanism by which the virus causes defects in the production of antibodies. It is only in this way that researchers will ensure that the vaccines that are ultimately developed don’t replicate these ‘tricks’ from the virus.

“This project could reveal some of the secrets that the virus has; some of the ways that it is able to manipulate our bodies so that our immune responses are not as robust as they should be,” Dr Muema explains.

Dr Muema initially trained as a pharmacist, but the research bug bit after a six-month internship at the KEMRI Wellcome Trust Research Programme in Kenya and he went on to pursue a PhD in HIV immunology based at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, Open University (UK) and KEMRI.

He says the complexity of the immunology field is what appeals to him. “There’s always something new and always something you don’t know. Whenever you read anything immunological, there’s always the chance that the next page will tell you something that you’ve never heard of. It’s a dynamic field – it will never be boring.”

Muema joined K-RITH’s Ndung’u lab as a postdoc in March 2015. He was attracted by K-RITH’s state-of-the-art laboratory facilities, basic science research environment and Professor Thumbi Ndung’u’s expertise in the field – all of which open up new opportunities for the mechanistic work he wants to pursue.

Muema has thanked Professor Ndung’u for his mentorship and for supporting him in his application for the NRF fellowship, his K-RITH colleagues for their help, as well as his former colleagues at KEMRI – who supported his move to Durban.

“It’s the first post-PhD external grant that I’ve ever got. So it means a lot to me, because I see it as the beginning.”