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Researcher receives Harry Oppenheimer award

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

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

STELLENBOSCH University immunologist Professor Clive Gray received the prestigious Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award, which recognises world-class research that has 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,” Rebecca Oppenheimer, chair of the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust (OMT), said in a statement.

“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.“

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

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, laboratory-based 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,” Gray added.

While antiretroviral 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 who are 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 antiretroviral 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.

A second focus of the project for Gray is the capacity-building of South Africa’s scientific research community, through the involvement of masters and doctoral students.

“I have over 25 years’ experience in training students in immunology and laboratory techniques. I will use this award to further train the next generation of scientific leaders, while building a greater capacity to improve mother and child health,” he said.

This aspect of the project fulfils one of OMT’s aims – to build and strengthen South African academic research capabilities.

OMT introduced the fellowship in 2001 to commemorate Harry Oppenheimer’s efforts to support human and intellectual development in South Africa, advance scholarship and encourage ideas.

“We are delighted to add Professor Gray to our Harry Oppenheimer Fellows, all of whom have contributed to the advancement of knowledge in South Africa and beyond. Research capacity development is central to the Trust’s commitment to supporting academic excellence,” Oppenheimer concluded.

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