By Alberto Leny

Long before Zaza Ndhlovu became one of the African continent’s leading researchers on HIV/AIDS, considered the deadliest epidemic in the 21st Century, the disease had taken a heavy toll on his home country Zambia.

Zaza Ndhlovu

According to data from the 2000 census, the Zambian people affected by HIV/AIDS constituted 15% of the total population, amounting to one million, of which 60% were women, and an estimated 600,000 children had been rendered orphans by the pandemic.

Today, Zambia has a national HIV prevalence rate of 17%, only surpassed by South Africa (18.9%), where Ndhlovu is a Sub-Saharan Africa Network for TB/HIV Research Excellence (SANTHE) researcher/supervisor and senior lecturer at the HIV Pathogenesis Programme (HPP) of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN).

The HIV epidemic ravaging his native country was the focus of Ndhlovu’s studies at the University of Lusaka medical school, focusing on the surveillance of the prevalence of the disease. In 1997, Ndhlovu and other authors conducted a study and wrote a paper, The HIV epidemic in Zambia: socio-demographic prevalence patterns and indications of trends among childbearing women, published in the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, PubMed.

This was followed a year later by Studying dynamics of the HIV epidemic: population-based data compared with sentinel surveillance in Zambia. Ndhlovu’s dedication to HIV/AIDS research took a great leap forward when he won a scholarship for his post-graduate studies in the US.

After securing a faculty position at Harvard, Ndhlovu decided to relocate his research programme to South Africa: “I reasoned that incidence rates of close to 10% per year in Kwa-Zulu Natal would enable me to address unique aspects of the host immune response to HIV that could not be undertaken where I had trained, while at the same time I could contribute to scientific capacity building needed to meet current and future African medical challenges.”

His relocation to UKZN in Durban, South Africa has been a huge boost to research at the epicentre of the epidemic and allowed him access to well-pedigreed acute infection samples.

Almost one in five (17%) of South African adults aged between 15 and 49 have HIV and a total of 5.3 million South Africans under the age of 50 are HIV-positive, according to a University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and  Evaluation (IHME) study published in May in the journal Nature.

The IHME study found South Africa’s HIV adult prevalence rate was much higher than in most other countries, including Kenya (5.6%), Mozambique (11.9%), Namibia (13.8%), Nigeria (3%) and Zimbabwe (13.5%).

Ndhlovu has been selected for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Research Scholars Programme and awarded a five-year grant of $650,000, one of 41 scientists selected out of 1,500 applicants from 16 countries worldwide, and one of two successful applicants from Africa.

HHMI, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation established the programme to help develop scientific talent in a wide variety of biomedical research fields, offering early-career scientists with the opportunity to pursue new research directions and creative projects that could develop top-notch scientific programmes.

“This award is a remarkable achievement, and a tremendous tribute to Zaza’s creativity, commitment and innovation. He is an outstanding scientist whose research being done here in Africa is having an international impact,” says Ndhlovu’s mentor and SANTHE site principal investigator Bruce Walker.

SANTHE researcher Ndhlovu’s first study, seeks to, more precisely, determine the type of immune response needed to be induced by vaccination, or other immune-based therapies, to protect against new infection or treat HIV infection.

The study will focus on immune cells isolated from human lymph nodes, which is the major site of HIV replication during antiretroviral therapy. It is expected to lead to the discovery of how to direct immune responses to sites of active HIV replication lymphoid tissues in people on suppressive antiretroviral therapy as a novel strategy for the treatment of HIV.

“The study will use a mouse model reconstructed with a human immune system to allow manipulation of the human systems in ways that cannot be done in humans. Selectively transferring different populations of pre-defined human killer immune cell subsets isolated from HIV infected persons into HIV infected mice will lead to the discovery of the most potent HIV killer cell subsets.

“If successful, the results of this study will set the standard for the quality of immune responses needed to be elicited by a vaccine,” explains Ndhlovu.

SANTHE, a consortium of researchers from Botswana, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa and Zambia, is one of 11 awardees of the US$100 million DELTAS Africa programme supporting the Africa-led development of world-class researchers and scientific leaders in Africa.

The programme is being implemented by The African Academy of Sciences (The AAS) through its programmatic platform, the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA) with the support of Wellcome Trust and the UK Department for International Development (DfID).

DELTAS Africa nurtures mentorship, leadership and equitable collaboration in science, and engagement with public and policy stakeholders, while cultivating professional environments to manage and support scientific research.

Ndhlovu says he is exceptionally lucky to work under the leadership of SANTHE programme director Thumbi Ndung’u and scientific director of UKZN’s HIV Pathogenesis Programme (HPP). “He is just one of the greatest guys you could ever work with – he’s been very welcoming, supportive, and a very accomplished scientist himself.”

Ndhlovu credits his graduate students and support staff at HPP, and especially acknowledges the cohorts he used to access the samples. “The women from the Females Rising through Education, Support and Health (FRESH) are selfless – they graciously allow us to get samples from them for our research.”

Personally, apart from the desperately needed funding, Ndhlovu says the award has the potential to contribute substantially to HIV research. “ It’s also a recognition for our institution and African institutions like ours – that we can do cutting edge science in Africa at the heart of this devastating epidemic.

“We publish papers in very high impact journals from work that is done locally, and we have shown that that we can succeed and excel and compete with the best of the world. I really hope this motivates younger African scientists to aim for the stars.”