UCT researchers recognised for groundbreaking work on health inequality

The beginning of groundbreaking research that holds the promise of significantly enhancing health outcomes across Africa. Picture: Pexels/Martin Lopez

The beginning of groundbreaking research that holds the promise of significantly enhancing health outcomes across Africa. Picture: Pexels/Martin Lopez

Published Jan 17, 2024


In a significant development at the University of Cape Town (UCT), Dr Melissa Nel and Associate Professor Esmita Charani have been honoured as this year’s recipients of the esteemed Wellcome Career Development award, as reported by Linda Daniels for UCT News.

This recognition stands as a momentous milestone, signifying the beginning of groundbreaking research that holds the promise of significantly enhancing health outcomes across Africa.

The Wellcome Career Development award is dedicated to funding mid-career researchers across all disciplines, enabling them to drive substantial advancements in knowledge that have the potential to greatly improve the well-being and overall quality of life for humanity.

According to associate professor Charani, the insights garnered from her research endeavour hold the potential to design, implement and evaluate the impact of solutions tailored to various populations.

Additionally, this work aims to provide a toolkit for advocacy in the fields of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and health, fostering policy dialogue and intervention.

Ultimately, this research directly benefits the targeted population and has the potential to inform healthcare practices across participating countries, with the prospect of broader applicability.

Nel and Charani are dedicated to leveraging their research within the African context, with Charani broadening her focus to encompass marginalised communities in India as well.

Their scientific contributions are anticipated to fill a significant research gap in their respective areas of interest, with the potential for far-reaching impact.

Nel, a trained medical doctor and a neurogenetics and Neuromuscular Disorders researcher at UCT’s Neuroscience Institute, focuses her research on Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a disease with no known cure.

She aims to investigate the genetic factors associated with ALS in African populations, thereby aiding global efforts to understand the underlying causes of the disease and to develop preventive or curative measures.

Dr Melissa Nel. Picture: Screenshot

“There is currently a lack of knowledge about the epidemiological features of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in sub-Saharan Africa, and available data from the region are limited,” said Nel, emphasising the need for more comprehensive research in this area.

Charani, a trained clinical pharmacist and a member of the Division of HIV Medicine and Infectious Diseases at UCT, as well as a contributing researcher at the Wellcome Centre for Infectious Diseases Research in Africa, exemplifies a commitment to pioneering work that transcends geographic boundaries and aims to address critical health challenges on a global scale.

Associate Professor Charani. Picture: Screenshot

Nel, a leading figure in Neurogenomics at UCT's Neuroscience Institute, expresseD her enthusiasm for the implications of the newly allocated funds.

She said: “This investment will allow me to grow my Neurogenomics Lab at UCT’s Neuroscience Institute, conduct a translational research project that will hopefully tangibly improve clinical care for ALS patients in Africa and contribute to the training of postgraduate students in genomics and bioinformatics.”

The study conducted by Nel brings to the forefront the pressing need for enhanced diagnostic and treatment methods for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) in African populations.

Her ambitious project seeks to bridge the existing knowledge gap in ALS research and transform the prospects of clinical care for ALS patients across the continent.

Charani's research offers a compelling exploration into the impact of power dynamics, hierarchies, and healthcare-seeking behaviours on healthcare access within diverse cultural contexts.

She stresses the urgency of addressing antimicrobial resistance (AMR), a global health concern responsible for a significant number of deaths worldwide. "AMR is not a problem that can be fixed in one corner of the world; we need to have a broad and long vision and develop networks of excellence and research globally.“

Her research underscores the pervasive impact of inequalities on infectious disease, shedding light on how diverse identities intersect with power dynamics in healthcare, particularly among healthcare professionals.

The misuse and overuse of antimicrobials pose a threat to the medical advancements of modern medicine, rendering infections harder to treat and other medical procedures riskier.

The societal complexities surrounding antibiotic use serve as the focal point of Charani's research, which aims to integrate a sociocultural lens to develop tailored solutions that account for diverse populations and contexts.

This gives insights into the intricate social expectations surrounding antibiotics and the pressing need for enhanced understanding and targeted interventions.

The significance of the research extends beyond Africa, promising far-reaching implications for global health sciences and disease prevention.

Their pioneering efforts represent a crucial step towards addressing healthcare inequalities and shaping a more equitable future for healthcare access and treatment worldwide.