Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, Professor Loyiso Nongxa;

Event convenor, Dr Monde Ntwasa;

Ladies and gentlemen


Allow me to start by extending my appreciation to Professor Nongxa for the invitation extended to me to deliver the opening address at this, the European Molecular Biology Organisation’s global exsite2016 lecture series on innate immunity.


The European Molecular Biology Organisation, perhaps more commonly known  as EMBO, focuses on excellence in life sciences.  It provides platforms for scientific exsite2016 and training in cutting-edge, state-of-the-art technologies, thereby helping to maintain high standards of excellence in research practice.   It should therefore come as no surprise, then, that we in South Africa are highly appreciative of the fact that EMBO has partnered with our researchers to strengthen their capacity and to promote research in the area of molecular biology. 


We are also very grateful for EMBO’s sponsorship of this very important lecture series, and we commend the organisation for its interest and involvement in our country.  With its 1500 members and associate members, including some of the very best researchers in Europe and around the world, EMBO is a highly respected and reputable organisation, and we are proud to be one of its partners.


Ladies and gentlemen, this lecture series, starting today and concluding on Wednesday, will help to encourage increased collaboration and joint research between researchers and institutions across the world.  An equally important benefit of the lecture series is that it will provide young scientists and students with exposure to the latest research findings in the field of innate immunity.  The study of innate immunity is gaining momentum in South Africa, notably with regard to the understanding of major health problems such as tuberculosis and HIV.


The past decade has witnessed increasing numbers of research groups studying specific innate immune topics.  Moreover, researchers and specialists in this field of research are confidently tackling new problems and pushing the frontiers of our understanding of host defences. 


Just last Wednesday I had the privilege of opening the International Research Forum in Cape Town, where a number of Forum delegates shared some of their research findings.  The feedback we received was most encouraging, and shows that by sharing platforms and bringing together human and other resources, regional and international partnerships can address vital research challenges that simply cannot be tackled by countries working in isolation. There is a growing acceptance that research outputs will materialise faster and with greater success if resources, skills and infrastructure are shared.  Universities across the world, too, are increasingly forging  strategic networks with a view to advancing their respective interests.


Of course, it is a matter common knowledge that the main role of the body’s immune system is to protect it from infection. Over the past few decades, research into the causes of a number of diseases has mostly focused on the adaptive immune system, because of its ability to generate specific immunity to antigens.  More recently, however, many scientists and researchers have been placing greater emphasis on the innate system, because although it is less specific than the adaptive system, is it no less important in its ability to discriminate between good and bad antigens and to generate a potent first-line defence against infections. Moreover, it is becoming clear that a range of diseases more often than not involve both the innate and adaptive immune systems.


Across the globe, extensive research is being conducted in order to arrive at a better understanding of the mechanisms involved in innate immunity with a view to developing drugs, diagnostics and vaccines for a number of diseases.  This is of particular importance to South Africa, given our ongoing efforts to combat diseases such as HIV/Aids, tuberculosis and malaria.  Recent scientific breakthroughs, both abroad and here in South Africa, have been a source of great encouragement for our researchers and scientists, and have brought renewed hope to many of our citizens. 


Many of you will have noted with great interest last week the announcement by Professor Kelly Chibale of the discovery of a possible single-dose, orally administered malaria cure, following extensive research undertaken by the Medicines for Malaria Venture based in Switzerland, and the Drug Discovery and Development Centre at the University of Cape Town.  It has the potential to save millions of young African from early death – malaria accounts for no less than 24% of total child deaths in sub-Saharan Africa.


This surely serves as an excellent example of the the quality of research that can be done in Africa, if the resources are made available, and with the benefit partnering with an international organization.


Most of you will also know that at the recent International Aids Conference in Washington DC, Aids experts announced that significant progress had been made towards finding a possible cure for Aids.  Findings of several studies have shown that the HI virus can be controlled and prevented from multiplying, and be completely eradicated in some cases. 


With regard to tuberculosis, the Global Alliance for TB drug development has released results of a clinical trial of a new combination of drugs to treat the disease.  The results offer new hope to TB patients, including those who are HIV-positive.  The new drug cocktail was found to kill 99% of tuberculosis bacteria within two weeks.  This is a most significant development, especially given the fact that there have been no new drugs to treat TB in the past 40 years.


Ladies and gentlemen, it is sobering to note that the continent of Africa, which has just 11% of the world’s population, carries 25% of the world’s burden of disease.  Many of these diseases do not get the research funding from pharmaceutical companies that the dominant diseases and health problems of more affluent countries enjoy.  The result is that affected populations have limited access to safe, effective and affordable medicines and vaccines, resulting in high morbidity and mortality. 

In South Africa alone, an estimated 5.6 million people are infected with HIV, and our country has one of the fastest growing HIV/TB co-infection rates in the world.  We are ranked third in the world in terms of the total number of annual cases of all forms of tuberculosis.  Apart from the growing rate of these infectious diseases, our country also has to grapple with an increasing burden associated with non-communicable or chronic diseases of lifestyle.  Diabetes and obesity, for example, are expected to reach epidemic proportions in the future, affecting the developing world to a greater extent than the developed world.  This increase is being fuelled by population growth, ageing, urbanisation, a lack of physical activity and changing cultural practices.  These facts reveal just how important research and innovation are for the development of effective and sustainable measures against diseases in this country.


The Department of Science and Technology has established a number of initiatives that support research on HIV/Aids, TB and malaria, with some of this research specifically targeting the innate immune system.  The South African Malaria Initiative, the TB Research and Innovation Initiative and the HIV/Aids Research and Innovation Platform were all established by the DST to facilitate research into these diseases.   These programmes bring together key researchers in our country with a focus on molecular aspects of drug development and discovery, vaccine research and development and diagnostics.  One of the researchers funded by these programmes, Dr Jo-Anne Passmore, will in fact be speaking on the final day of this lecture series on the topic “Natural Killer Cells in Viral Immunity”.


The DST  has also established the Non-Communicable Diseases Research and Innovation Initiative to stimulate research into cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.  Furthermore, the formation of technology platforms via the Technology Innovation Agency, has boosted access to technology, infrastructure, capabilities and know-how relevant to specific Biotechnology application areas.  These platforms are crucial enablers for health research and development in our country.


A number of international partnerships focusing on the development of drugs and vaccines have been set up in recent years.  The most notable of these include the Global Alliance for TB Drug Development, the International Aids Vaccine Initiative and the Medicines for Malaria Venture, which I mentioned earlier.  However, much of this research is undertaken outside of Africa, with the continent mainly providing the clinical trials sites.  It is critical for early-stage research and development to be conducted in Africa, to enable Africans to play a bigger role in finding solutions to their own problems, and to develop the capacity of African institutions to play a leading role in international research and knowledge generation.


As the much loved and respected Wits paleao-anthropologist, Professor Philip Tobias, who recently passed away, often told us: "Africa gave the world humanity, and that is no small thing."  And now Africa is poised to contribute in a meaningful way to the global effort to find solutions to some of the common challenges confronting humanity.  It can do so much faster, much better, by linking up with its offspring who are now living in other parts of the world, but who most certainly all come from Africa!


In conclusion, allow me to wish you all an enjoyable, informative and inspirational lecture series.  May it challenge your long-held perceptions, encourage you in your various fields of expertise and inspire you to, as the great scientist Stephen Hawking said a few days ago at the opening of the Paralympic Games in London, “look up at the stars, not down at your feet.”


Thank you.