K-RITH PhD student Amanda Wellmann and Masters student Kashmeel Maharaj have won prizes for their presentations at the recent UKZN College of Health Sciences Research Symposium.

More than 100 staff members and postgraduate students presented posters and talks at the two-day event held at the K-RITH Tower Building at UKZN’s Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine on 8 and 9 September 2016.

Wellmann, a member of K-RITH’s Leslie Lab, scooped third place in the PhD category for her talk about Innate Lymphoid Cells (ILCs) and their involvement in tuberculosis (TB) disease. ILCs are a novel subset of immune cells found in many different organisms, including humans and mice. They have links to tissue repair and remodelling in the lung, and are also central to granuloma formation. “Because granuloma formation and tissue remodelling are key aspects of TB pathology, we hypothesised ILCs may have a role in TB disease,” Wellmann says. “We found that these cells are found in much lower frequencies in the blood samples of TB patients in comparison to the levels seen in healthy patients.” Wellmann is now expanding her research to include resected human lung samples from TB patients, as well as TB-negative controls. “This project is on-going so we can’t make any definitive conclusions about whether ILCs do play a role in TB, but we have a few pieces of evidence that suggest this may be the case,” she says.

Maharaj, a Pym Lab Masters student and lab technologist, won first prize in his category for his talk about the genetic mutations which cause resistance to the important anti-TB drug pyrazinamide. Maharaj explains that early detection of drug resistance is essential in the fight against TB. Rapid genetic tests to identify resistance to the drugs rifampicin and isoniazid have been developed and introduced, but this is not yet the case for pyrazinamide. As a first step towards this, Maharaj set out to identify the full spectrum of mutations in the pncA gene of TB – which codes for the enzyme responsible for activation of pyrazinamide within the bacteria. “After screening our pncA mutant library in two separate testing systems, validating selected mutants through a commercially available drug susceptibility test, and investigating the underlying mechanisms of resistance, we were able to identify 411 mutations which we predict to confer resistance to pyrazinamide,” he says. Maharaj’s research represents an important step towards the introduction of rapid genetic-based test for pyrazinamide resistance.

Both Wellmann and Maharaj won generous travel awards from UKZN and plan to present their research at an international conference in the near future.