Durban - Cellular therapies are the next big step in medicine. That was the word from one of the world’s leading HIV researchers, Professor Ravi Gupta, 43, who was in Durban this week for the Bio Africa Convention at which scientists and health-care specialists from across the world gathered to share the latest biotechnologies.
Based at Cambridge University in the UK, Gupta, a virologist, was the lead author in a study which made headlines this year reporting that a second HIV-infected person was “cured” or had “gone into remission”.
Known as “the London patient”, the person received a bone marrow transplant in 2016, which included a rare genetic mutation which prevents HIV from taking hold.
Gupta said the two-year mark after which the patient had stopped taking HIV medication is next month.
“But even at 18 months, there was thinking that this will be a cure,” he said on Tuesday.
The first HIV-infected person to be “cured”, known as the Berlin patient, received a first transplant in 2007, and a second stem cell transplant from the same donor in 2008. While Gupta pointed out that the mutation is rare, which limits possible matches for patients, “it’s the first step” in finding a cure for HIV/Aids.
A member of the Africa Health Research Institute, Gupta grew up in London and it was “a long-standing interest in politics and social economics” which led to a career in infectious diseases.
“I was interested in virology and did a PhD at the University College London in drug resistant HIV in sub-Saharan Africa.”
He has led a number of studies, both clinical and invitro, aimed at the global emerging threat of drug-resistant HIV, and said his research looks at “reservoirs of HIV and how it hangs around the body”.
“Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly South Africa, still has some of the highest incidences in the world and that includes KwaZulu-Natal.
“Going forward, the next big advancement will be cellular therapies, using cells to do things.”
Gupta said for young people choosing a career, “traditional disciplines will be outdated or not relevant, so we need an intersection of different skills. Biotechnology is an intersection of a number of different technologies, it fosters imagination to find solutions”.
Also at the convention was Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, who, referring to the proposed NHI health-care system, said this year’s theme “Transcending Consumerism, Leading Innovation” was “a call to arms for locals (South Africans and Africans) to do it for themselves and reduce dependence on imported expensive technologies and products”.
Mkhize also asked scientists to partner with Africa to develop new solutions for various diseases.
The Department of Science and Innovation’s director-general Dr Phil Mjwara said South Africa was one of the global mega-diverse hotspots with huge bio-prospecting potential, while highlighting that indigenous knowledge-based technology innovations was a huge strategic opportunity.
“Science is not all about publishing papers. We believe that through science, we can solve some of the country’s societal problems.”