Gates Cambridge Scholarship for Virology Master’s Graduate
UKZN Master of Medical Sciences in Virology graduate, Ms Isabella Anna Theresa Markham Ferreira, has been awarded a Gates Cambridge Scholarship.
The scholarships were established by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with a US$210 million donation to enable outstanding graduate students from all over the world to study at the University of Cambridge in England. It was the largest single donation ever made to a United Kingdom university.
‘I feel incredibly honoured to have obtained my Master of Medical Sciences in Virology degree and be awarded a Gates Cambridge Scholarship. It is something I would never even have dreamed of - I am humbled,’ said Ferreira.
Her future aspirations involve further understanding how HIV infection persists in the presence of antiretroviral therapy and a commitment to actively improve the lives of those infected, particularly in South Africa.
The scholarship covers university fees, a maintenance allowance for the duration of doctoral studies, airfare, and visa costs.
Ferreira says growing up in KwaZulu-Natal, which has one of the highest incidences of HIV infection in the world, she felt an obligation to focus her studies on understanding the virus further and discovering ways that could potentially lead to a cure.
She was fortunate to have had many incredible opportunities during her master’s work offered by her supervisor, Dr Alex Sigal, and the Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI), and also got fellowships from the Sub-Saharan African Network for TB/HIV Research Excellence(SANTHE) and the Poliomyelitis Research Foundation.
Her master’s research involved identifying the cellular HIV reservoir in lymph nodes from individuals virally suppressed on treatment.
‘The HIV reservoir is the reason why individuals on antiretroviral treatment are suppressed and not cured,’ said Ferreira. ‘The virus is able to remain in a latent state in anatomical sites that have low drug penetrance, such as the lymph nodes, and this allows for the virus to persist and not be eradicated. We hypothesised that certain immune cell populations in the lymph nodes were responsible for harbouring a replication-competent virus. And we used a variety of techniques, including single-cell RNA-sequencing, to identify these cells.’
She said the study identified certain immune cell populations which harboured replication-competent virus in the context of the cellular HIV reservoir. ‘Further details will be given on publication of our work. The downstream applications of these findings are therapeutic methods which could be used to attempt to eradicate the virus in these cells, thus resulting in a functional cure.
‘While there are many studies that examine the cellular HIV reservoir in different capacities, ours was novel in that we were using whole lymph node samples from study participants who were virally suppressed on treatment, and in the techniques we used to identify these cell types, such as high-throughput single-cell RNA-sequencing methods,’ she said.
Ferreira studied a BSc in Genetics and Psychology at the University of Cape Town and then moved to UKZN’s Pietermaritzburg campus to study for an honours degree in Genetics. She completed a short internship in Sigal’s laboratory after her honours degree and then did her master’s under his supervision.
During this time, she spent a year as a visiting student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States in a collaborating lab.
‘I thoroughly enjoyed my time at UKZN,’ said Ferreira. ‘I was based at the Africa Health Research Institute on the Medical campus and I was very privileged to have had that opportunity. I was surrounded by incredible scientists who are leading ground-breaking research in the fields of HIV and TB research. My peers were all committed to conducting research that positively impacted the lives of those suffering from these diseases and this motivated me to conduct the best research I could.’
Ferreira’s hobbies include playing the piano, hiking, enjoying natural foods and keeping fit.
Words: Lihle Sosibo