Stellenbosch University immunologist gets fellowship award

Professor Clive Gray recipient of the 2023 Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award and Rebecca Oppenheimer, chair of the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust

Professor Clive Gray recipient of the 2023 Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award and Rebecca Oppenheimer, chair of the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust

Published Jul 7, 2024


Stellenbosch University immunologist Professor Clive Gray received the prestigious Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award, which recognises world-class research that has a far-reaching impact.

“Professor Gray’s research has the potential to revolutionise our understanding of how the human placenta functions and, from that, uncover new pathways to improving mother-child health.

“We are excited to watch this story unfold, as we have witnessed the stories of previous Harry Oppenheimer Fellows change the game in fields from biochemistry and biology to engineering, history, and zoology to mention a few,” said Oppenheimer Memorial Trust (OMT) chairperson, Rebecca Oppenheimer.

The fellowship and its accompanying R2.5-million grant is awarded to scholars of the highest calibre who are engaged in cutting-edge and internationally significant research that has particular application to the advancement of knowledge, teaching, research and development in South Africa and beyond.

“Receiving this award is very meaningful,” said Gray. “It’s recognition of the work that I and my research group have been doing over many years. That the OMT acknowledges the importance of what we do is very gratifying and rewarding.”

Professor Gray’s work is aimed at revealing new knowledge about how to manage the risks of premature birth, low birth weight and learning difficulties, by uncovering a predictive marker of adverse birth events.

“Our work is niche, laboratorybased research using sophisticated techniques and tools. We need to know how diseases such HIV in pregnant women interferes with the growth of the placenta and how this, in turn, impacts adverse birth outcomes and disrupts maternal health.

“These adverse outcomes have a devastating effect on South African society, where impaired child and maternal health is linked with deprived early childhood development,” said Gray.

While antiretroviral (ARV) treatment given to mothers living with HIV has been a huge success in preventing viral transmission from mother to child, there are many challenges remaining. Many babies born to these women are not as healthy as their counterparts born to HIV uninfected mothers.

They often suffer from stunted growth, are more susceptible to viral and bacterial infections, and some are born prematurely. These children also have long-term learning difficulties.

“It is not known whether the ARV drugs play a role in these outcomes, or whether these conditions are related to a combination of their mother’s HIV status and the effects of the drugs.”

Gray and his team have shown that women living with HIV who initiate ARV drug treatment before they become pregnant have a condition known as maternal vascular malperfusion – poor placental blood vessel development.

This condition elevates these mothers’ risk of a premature birth and of their infants being of low birth weight. Generally, the mothers also suffer high blood pressure that can lead to increased risks of cardiovascular difficulties leading to major heart problems.

Weekend Argus