Emily Wong

Dr Emily Wong is an Infectious Disease physician-scientist whose work focuses on trying to understand the impact of HIV infection on TB pathogenesis, immunity and epidemiology.  To address these questions she uses a range of techniques that span molecular to population science.

Emily specialises in establishing unique human cohorts to address fundamental questions about human infectious disease and immune responses. In collaboration with the Department of Pulmonology at Inkosi Albert Luthuli Hospital, Emily established Phefumula, a research bronchoscopy cohort that allows comparative study of immune cells from the mucosal surface of the lung and the peripheral blood of people with well-defined states of HIV and TB. She is one of the co-Primary Investigators of Vukuzazi, AHRI’s population-based health ‘omics study that links the longstanding demographic surveillance population to next-generation science.  Designed to shed light on genetic and acquired drivers of health and disease, Vukuzazi defines deep human phenotypes using community-based health screening for HIV, TB and non-communicable diseases and collects biosamples to support genomic and transcriptomic study in a population of 30 000 people in the uMkhanyakude district of KwaZulu-Natal.  Vukuzazi launched in May 2018 and to date has enrolled over 10 000 participants.

Emily’s clinical and research interests have focused on the intersections of the HIV and TB epidemics in South Africa since she first worked in Durban in 2003. She witnessed the profound toll of the HIV-epidemic in KZN and was inspired by health care workers and activists who fought to make antiretroviral therapy available in the public sector. To try to better understand the causes of HIV-related mortality after ARV rollout, Emily worked with colleagues in Johannesburg to conduct a post-mortem needle autopsy study to determine the causes of death of patients dying in the first months of antiretroviral therapy; this work revealed very high rates of disseminated tuberculosis and tuberculosis immune reconstitution inflammatory syndrome.

Funded by a career development fellowship from the NIH, Emily’s recent research has focused on trying to understand the immune response to TB in the human lung through study of immune cells in the respiratory mucosa. She has particularly focused on a novel class of innate lymphocytes, Mucosal Associated Invariant T (MAIT) cells, trying to understand their role in anti-TB immunity and how HIV alters their function.  Since the launch of Vukuzazi, Emily’s research group spans the Durban and Somkhele campuses of AHRI and aims to bring together next-generation molecular techniques with population science to understand and interrupt drivers of TB infection and disease in the context of HIV hyperendemnicity.

In addition to her resident faculty appointment at AHRI, Emily is a clinically active member of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, a Lecturer at Harvard Medical School and an Honorary Clinical Senior Lecturer in the Division of Infection and Immunity at University College London. When not in the lab, Emily can be found trying to keep up with her children’s interests, which these days means cheering at U10 and U7 swimming galas and waving madly at rubbish trucks and construction equipment.

Get in touch with Emily via emily.wong@ahri.org

Click here for a full list of publications.

Emily Wong

Wong Group

The Wong Group’s current projects include:

  1. Utilizing transcriptomics, from the whole-compartment to single-cell level, to understand the impact of HIV on immunity at the lung’s mucosal surface.
  2. Investigating MAIT cells, a novel class of innate-like lymphocytes with tissue-homing properties and antimicrobial activity, in the lung and peripheral circulation.
  3. Trying to understand how genetic and acquired factors (HIV, diabetes, inflammation) impact TB transmission and disease in ‘Vukuzazi’, a population-based cohort.

Meet the Team

Bongiwe Xulu - Wong Group

Bongiwe Xulu

PhD Student

Bongiwe Xulu holds a Master’s degree in Biochemistry from UKZN. Bongiwe’s work at AHRI focuses on understanding the immune response to HIV infected individuals and how infection alters immunity to M tuberculosis. She has also been working on studying the function and location of mucosal invariant T (MAIT) cells immune response from bronchoalveolar lavage fluid compared to the peripheral blood.

Sharon Khuzwayo - Wong Group

Sharon Khuzwayo

PhD Student

Sharon has undergraduate and Master's degrees in Cellular Biology from UKZN. Her PhD project focuses on cloning and characterizing mucosal-associated invariant T (MAIT) cells in the lung and peripheral blood of tuberculosis infected individuals, with the hope of understanding how these innate-like T cells may be involved in the host’s protective anti-TB immune responses.

Yumna Moosa - Wong Group

Yumna Moosa

PhD Student

Yumna Moosa is an amateur mathematician and qualified medical doctor, with a MBChB degree from the University of Cape Town. She also holds a Master’s degree in Virology and Bioinformatics from UKZN. Her PhD project involves applying molecular and bioinformatic techniques to understand transmission and drivers of tuberculosis and dysbiotic vaginal microbiota in the Vukuzazi study.

Thierry Basset  - Wong Group

Thierry Basset

Research Lab Technician

Thierry Basset holds an honours degree in Microbiology from Stellenbosch University. His work at AHRI focusses on trying to understand the immune response to HIV and Mycobacterium tuberculosis co-infections within the respiratory mucosa, and how Mucosal Associated Invariant T (MAIT) cells may differ to similar T-cells located elsewhere in the body.

Zinhle Mzobe  - Wong Group

Zinhle Mzobe


Zihle Mzobe completed her MSc degree in Virology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal as part of the HIV Pathogenesis Programme. Her research project was focused on the effect of HIV-1 Nef's ability to alter TCR signalling amongst different HIV-1 subtypes. She is currently studying towards a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery and is also involved in a mental health awareness campaign with the South African Depression and Anxiety Group. In the Wong group she is currently working on two articles for publication based on data from the Vukuzazi programme - AHRI's next generation population-based health research platform.

Jana Fehr - Wong Group

Jana Fehr

PhD student

Jana Fehr wrote her master thesis in Molecular Biotechnology about modelling the spread of HIV in different environments. She is now a PhD student at the Digital Health chair of the Hasso-Plattner-Institute in Germany and collaborates with the Wong group and the the Vukuzazi programme - AHRI's next generation population-based health research platform. Her project focuses on applying machine learning on community-based data to answer fundamental questions about tuberculosis.

Selected Recent Publications

Wong, E. B., Gold, M. C., Meermeier, E. W., Xulu, B. Z., Khuzwayo, S., Sullivan, Z. A., … Lewinsohn, D. M. (2019). TRAV1-2+ CD8+ T-cells including oligoconal expansions of MAIT cells are enriched in the airways in human tuberculosis. Communications Biology, 2(1), 203.

Wong EB, Ndung'u T, Kasprowicz VO. (2017). The role of mucosal-associated invariant T cells in infectious diseases.  Immunology; 150(1):45-54.

Sullivan ZS*, Wong EB*, Ndung'u TN, Kasprowicz VO, Bishai WR. (2015) . Latent TB infection increases immune activation in individuals co-infected with HIV. EBioMedicine, 2(4), 334-340.

Wong EB, Akilimali NA, Govender P, Sullivan Z, Cosgrove C, Pillay M, Lewinsohn DM, Bishai WR, Walker BD, Ndung’u T, Klenerman P, Kasprowicz VO. (2013). Low levels of peripheral CD161++CD8+ Mucosal Associated Invariant T (MAIT) cells are found in HIV and HIV/TB co-infection. PLoS ONE, 8(12):e83474.

Wong EB, Omar T, Setlhako GJ, Osih R, Feldman C, Murdoch DM, Martinson NA, Bangsberg DR, Venter WD. (2012). Causes of Death on Antiretroviral Therapy: A Post-Mortem Study from South Africa. PLoS ONE, 7(10).