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START partnership between Africa and the UK: training next-generation researchers in structural biology

8 Feb 2018 - 14:00

START is a proposal to utilise Synchrotron Techniques for African Research and Technology. It will build a partnership between world leading scientists in Africa and the UK who specialise in two strands of science: developing and characterising novel energy materials (catalysts and photovoltaics) and structural biology (understanding disease and developing drug targets). It uses synchrotron radiation for structure determination at the core of the scientific progress, and the programme will build a partnership between world leading scientists in Africa and the UK. Africa is the only continent that has no synchrotron, but researchers at Diamond Light Source, UK, have been awarded £3.7M to develop synchrotron research in Africa.

UCT will lead a South African component, funded to a total value of GBP1.3million and focusing on diseases such as HIV-AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and African horse sickness. A Centre of Excellence in Structural Biology will be created, with 2 posts, 3 postdoctoral fellowships, consumables and travel funding being provided through the grant.

Professor Trevor Sewell has been the driving force behind the South African (and UCT) component of the grant. Sewell is Director of the UCT Electron Microscope Unit, Division of Medical Biochemistry & Structural Biology in the Department of Integrative Biomedical Sciences (IBMS); and is a Member of the Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine (IDM). 

Sewell explains: “We will establish a collaborating network of seven South African institutions (the Universities of Pretoria, Witwatersrand, North West, Free State, Stellenbosch and Cape Town; and the National Institute for Communicable Diseases) that will enable young researchers to boost medical and veterinary research”. Non-governmental organisations involved in the project will include African Network for SOlar Energy (ANSOLE) and the Global Young Academy (GYA, which promotes international, interdisciplinary dialogue and collaborations to address globally important problems) - both critical in securing this grant.

Projects co-ordinated through UCT researchers will initially be led by Sewell as well as Professor Ed Sturrock (IBMS) and researchers from H3D directed by Professor Kelly Chibale (Department of Chemistry) with a focus, for now, on kinases, ribosomes and proteasomes.

START is not only about developing new energy materials or structural biology research; equally important is training the next generation of researchers and research leaders in these important areas of study. Annual workshops and participant meetings will be a major part of this initiative, with training visits between African and UK institutes.

This is a major breakthrough for training and development in structural biology in South Africa. And with funding through to 2021, START will positively impact on Africa, ideally with commercial applications. Principal Investigator Professor Chris Nicklin, based at Diamond, adds “Research will focus on African development needs, driven by African investigators.”