10 April 2014 Volume :2 Issue :18

Novel TB Research by PhD Graduate

Novel TB Research by PhD Graduate
Dr Nqobile Ngubane graduated with a PhD in Medical Microbiology.

Thabo Mbeki Leadership in Africa Scholarship recipient Dr Nqobile Ngubane graduated with a PhD in Medical Microbiology at UKZN’s College of Health Sciences after completing research in the field of Tuberculosis (TB) diagnosis. 

According to Ngubane, her study titled: “Development of Novel Reagents for the Detection of Tuberculosis”, was the first of its kind to use the combination of phage display combined with high-throughput sequencing for identifying molecular probes that bind to M. tuberculosis, the bacteria that causes tuberculosis.

‘To our knowledge there is no published data that identifies nucleic acid aptamers against the EsxG protein of M. tuberculosis which was also done during this study,’ she said.

The aim of the study was to use molecular biology tools, namely aptamers and phage display technology, to develop reagents that can be used to improve TB diagnosis, especially in resource-limited countries such as most on the African continent.

She said one of the primary reasons identified as a hindrance in controlling the spread of TB was that many cases of active disease go undetected or are discovered late.  

‘In our work we identified various reagents in the form of short peptides and nucleic acid aptamers that successfully recognise and bind to TB. This means that these reagents can be exploited in the development of new diagnostic tests for TB,’ she explained.

 The study has been presented in one international conference and two local conferences. Part of it was published in the internationally peer-reviewed journal, PloS One journal.

‘We ultimately hope that this work can contribute to the development of quick and accurate TB diagnostic tests that will enable timely intervention with treatment,’ she said.

Ngubane was supervised by Dr Alex Pym from K-RITH and two co-supervisors, Professor Eric Rubin from the Harvard School of Public Health and Dr M Khati from CSIR Biosciences. She spent most of her time during her PhD study in Dr Khati’s lab at the CSIR in Pretoria, on a CSIR PhD studentship.

‘I was proud to be part of what I believe is the first group in South Africa, at the CSIR, that specialises in this technology,’ said Ngubane. ‘As far as experiences are concerned, I would say the highlight of my PhD was working with experts in the TB field. I was humbled to work with Dr Alex Pym from KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute for Tuberculosis and HIV (K-RITH) at UKZN and Professor Eric Rubin from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). The time spent in Professor Rubin’s lab was absolutely the highlight of the experience,’ said Ngubane.

‘The research culture and environment at Harvard University was an absolute inspiration,’ she said. ‘It all would not be possible if we didn’t have organisations like the CSIR, which I was part of during my PhD work, and Higher Education Institutions like UKZN that administer the Fogarty Scholarship, which funded my time at HSPH.’

Ngubane spent a year in Rubin’s lab in Boston.  ‘She brought to the lab her expertise on using novel methods to detect molecules that study tuberculosis,’ Rubin said.

According to Rubin, the experience prompted Ngubane to try to apply the methods she had learned, together with those that she developed, to discover new approaches to diagnosing TB. 

‘Her work was “proof-of-concept” - while she did not produce a new diagnostic, she did show that the types of methods she used could lead to very different ways to rapidly identify the causative bacteria in patient samples.  But, in addition to doing a great job on an innovative project, Nqobile was the first South African student in our department and was a very successful ambassador - we now have a South African postdoc and an increasing number of lab members spending time in South Africa.’

‘Many students wait for something to happen or be told what to do. But Nqobile was quite different. Her drive, determination and independence meant she was able to work across three laboratories and really benefit from the experience. I’m very happy that K-RITH was able to support her and contribute to her success’ said Pym.

After completing her PhD work, Ngubane joined the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) as a candidate in their CHUMA Technology Commercialisation Programme.

‘I love technology; I believe in its power to transform people’s lives. So when I got an opportunity to be part of an organisation which aims to bring these technologies to life, that is, commercialise them, I couldn’t resist. It’s a fun programme which gives you exposure to the finance and legal environments that would usually take a lifetime to do by yourself.

‘Also, Dr Anitha Ramsuran, who runs the programme at TIA, is an absolute God-sent. She really takes her time to get to know the candidates and allocate them to assignments that will develop their area of interest in the technology transfer/commercialisation space. I have been really blessed,’ she said.

Ngubane loves research and the technology transfer and the commercialisation space that she is currently in. ‘It gives you the best of both worlds; keeping up with research and development from various fields, as well as related business development aspects which  is a lot of fun. I would like to keep doing this for a while, grow, and make my contribution to society in this field.’

Ngubane is an outdoors person who loves hiking, especially amid the silence of the mountains. The Drakensberg is her most loved place in the world.

Both her parents were school principals. Her late father loved reading and learning: ‘I think I get that from him. My mother is responsible and has high levels of integrity and perseverance. I hope I have a little bit of that too,’ Ngubane said.

Ngubane is from Esikhawini, the youngest of four siblings. She has a brother and two sisters. She said her fiancé, Siyabonga, has been most loving and supportive.

- Nombuso Dlamini

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