Ms Ntombenhle Hlengiwe Gama, a PhD student at the University of Pretoria, was recently awarded the Women in Science Award (WISA) Doctoral Scholarship by the Department of Science and Technology in South Africa.
Her research is focused on HIV: “HIV research, in a sense, just found me. I was in grade 5 when the disease was making headlines and in those days, the stories we heard about HIV were horrid and terrifying. All we kept on hearing was that AIDS kills and there is no cure for the infection. I remember saying to myself, at that very young age: ‘I would like to be part of the team that finds a cure for HIV.’ Fast forward to 11 years later, and I am doing an Honours project that is looking for alternative treatment strategies for HIV. This is the project that carried on to my MSc and PhD, where we also started looking at the treatment of opportunistic infections associated with HIV, such as TB. To me, the work I do is like a calling and I have no doubt that I am where I should be. “
Her current project focuses on the development of new metal-based drugs against the HIV life cycle, as well as associated opportunistic infections (tuberculosis, malaria) and cancer. She remarks that major challenges with current treatment methods include the development of resistance and adverse drug effects which lead to patient non-compliance: “In the case of co-infection, e.g. HIV-TB co-infection, simultaneous treatments have to administered resulting in drug-drug interactions as well as shared toxicities. It is, therefore, crucial to develop new drugs that are less toxic, but still effective against the virus. I am really passionate about drug discovery and how we can either control or reverse pathological effects using drugs. The drug discovery pipeline is, unfortunately, quite lengthy and a drug can take up to 15 years to reach commercial status.” She points out that the added ability of these new drugs to control or even prevent the development of infections that are likely to occur during HIV infection would be highly beneficial in the holistic treatment of the infection.
Ms Gama notes that while doing research is generally laborious, the breakthroughs and light-bulb moments really make it worthwhile, adding: “The prospect of one day possibly impacting someone else’s life for the better is also quite encouraging.”
And her advise to the youth of our nations? “Dream big and strive to achieve your dream. It’s not easy, nothing worthwhile ever is. Persist and allow the passion and dream to drive you forward.”