PhDs for Four Medical Biochemistry Boffins

From left: Drs Jivanka Mohan, Kirsten Avril Moses, Christen Erasmus and Thabani Sibiya with their supervisor and mentor, Professor Anil Chuturgoon (centre).

PhDs for Four Medical Biochemistry Boffins

Professor Anil Chuturgoon, Dean of Research in the College of Health Sciences, graduated four doctoral students, namely, Drs Kirsten Avril Moses, Jivanka Mohan, Christen Erasmus and Thabani Sibiya.

The four doctoral stars, who all excelled during their academic careers, published 11 papers in peer-reviewed journals.

Moses, who matriculated from Durban Girl's High School in Glenwood, graduated with all of her degrees from UKZN. She started with a Bachelor of Sciences degree in Life Sciences during which she was awarded an internship to work with the National Research Foundation (NRF). She went on to complete an Honours degree in Life Sciences and a Master's degree in Biochemistry (cum laude). Moses study investigated DNA methylation of the mitogen-activated protein kinase kinase kinase kinase 1 (MEKKK1) gene promoter in Jurkat T cells to determine whether the antiretroviral drugs, lamivudine (3TC), tenofovir disoproxil fumarate (TDF), dolutegravir (DTG), TLD (a combination of TDF, 3TC and DTG) and efavirenz (EFV) modify the methylation status of the MEKKK1 gene.

Antiretroviral Therapy (ARV) is the gold standard of treatment for people living with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (PLWHIV). ARVs do not cure PLWHIV but helps to prolong their lifespan by reducing viral load. Due to the huge numbers of PLWHIV on ARVs, it is essential to understand the long-term adverse effects of treatment regimens in patients. Moses novel study provides insights into the methylation status of the MEKKK1 gene and the Nrf2 gene promoters in Jurkat T cells treated with ARVs and highlights the effect of ARVs on the MEKKK1/NFkB inflammatory pathway as well as Nrf2-mediated antioxidant responsein vitro. During the course of her PhD, she published two papers. Moses enjoys reading novels, creative writing, listening to thought-provoking podcasts and spending time with her family.

Mohan who hails from Pietermaritzburg (PMB) encountered many challenges during her childhood including having no home and living in a garage with her parents until she turned 20. She was determined to work hard and succeed, and this meant that she excelled in her studies. As the first person in her family to attend university, enabled through a bursary from the Office of the KwaZulu-Natal Premier, she pursued a Bachelor of Science degree in Biochemistry and Microbiology at UKZN. She received funding from the NRF, DAAD – the German Academic Exchange Service and later from UKZN to pursue her honours (summa cum laude), masters (cum laude) and doctoral degrees. During her academic career, she accumulated several awards and accolades, including the Merck Best 3rd Year Biochemistry Student and several first-place conference prizes locally and internationally.

Mohan's doctoral study was on Current Antiretroviral Drugs – An Investigation of Metabolic Syndrome Promotion in HepG2 Cells. The results indicate that ARVs induce mitochondrial dysfunction in liver cells and that the combinational use of ARVs induced mitochondrial dysfunction and subsequently prompted inflammasome activation. Mohan said, Metabolic Syndrome (MetS) affects more than 20% of adults globally. Furthermore, the prevalence of MetS in HIV-infected patients on chronic ARV therapy continues to rise rapidly. This is alarming as a significant portion of people are HIV-infected worldwide, with the highest incidence in sub-Saharan Africa. An estimated 21% of people receiving ARV treatment display insulin resistance that is associated with mitochondrial dysfunction and inflammation.

During the course of her study, she published four papers. She commented, My biggest inspiration is my mum, who will graduate with her undergraduate degree in Education (North-West University) at the age of 46. I am overjoyed to graduate with her and would not have made it this far without her. I credit all my success to her sacrifices and support. Academically, my role models are my supervisors, Professor Anil Chuturgoon and Dr Terisha Ghazi, who have moulded me into a researcher and provided support throughout this journey. I hope to make them all proud.

Erasmus, a resident of PMB, built a successful career in clinical dietetics. She began her journey in the public sector and later transitioned to UKZN's Department of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, where she served as a Therapeutic Nutrition Postgraduate tutor. Her hard work and dedication earned her an MSc in Dieteticscum laudefrom UKZN.

Driven by her passion to advance knowledge in her field, Erasmus pursued a PhD in Health Sciences in Medical Biochemistry where her research interests centred around obesity, anthropometry, and maternal health.

Erasmus study was on, Predictive anthropometric measurements, associated factors, outcomes, and genetic factors involved in maternal overweight and obesity in HIV-infected and HIV-uninfected Black South African pregnant women. She said, The numbers of overweight and obese PLWHIV have increased globally and both are epidemics that are endemic to countries like South Africa. Targeting these two epidemics in pregnant women needs to be a priority in maternal health research.

Her study, published in peer-reviewed journals, found that older Black South African pregnant women presented with higher body mass index; hence, maternal age and gestational age were significantly associated with maternal overweight and obesity in both HIV-infected and HIV-uninfected pregnant women. Furthermore, this group of women had increased odds of developing hypertensive disorders.

Pregnant Black HIV-infected South African women presenting with overweight/obesity had the worst downregulatory effect on mRNA expression of adiponectin (ADIPOQ), leptin (LEP), leptin receptor (LEPR), fat mass and obesity-associated (FTO), and ghrelin (GHRL) in visceral adipose tissue. The downregulation of these genes may result in the dysregulation of metabolic pathways that usually control weight gain during pregnancy. Erasmus enjoys birding and camping during her free time and applies her wealth of experience and expertise in medical communications.

Sibiya, who grew up as an orphan in rural Eshowe, encountered many challenges along the way. He said, During weekends I used to work for people in Phoenix, cleaning gardens and washing cars. When my grandmother got sick, I was forced to go and stay in PMB with my aunt, where I completed high school at Siqongweni Secondary School. I did not have money to register at university, so I had to take a gap year and get a job. Luckily, I was hired by KFC Phoenix Plaza and I managed to save money for registration. Immediately after registration at UKZN in 2013, I successfully applied for the National Student Financial Aid Scheme funding. My undergraduate degree was in Genetics and Biochemistry. I majored in Medical Biochemistry for my honours, and this is where I found my second family under the supervision of Professor Anil Chuturgoon. I grew a lot in the field, and I felt like a chosen one. Professor Chuturgoon used to ask the class a lot of thought-provoking questions that only someone with an interest in science could understand and answer. I wanted to make a difference in the community, so I went on to do my Master's in Medical Sciences.

Sibiya's doctoral study, which resulted in four published papers was entitled: A Biochemical Assessment of the Potential of Spirulina Platensis to Ameliorate the Adverse Effects of Highly Active Antiretroviral TherapyIn Vitro. He commented: Despite the success of ARVs in prolonging HIV-infected patients lifespan, the long-term use of Highly Active ARVs promotes metabolic syndrome (MetS) through an inflammatory pathway, excess production of reactive oxygen species, and mitochondrial dysfunction. Interestingly, Spirulina platensis (SP), a blue-green microalga commonly used as a traditional food by Mexican and African people, has been demonstrated to mitigate MetS by regulating oxidative stress and inflammation.

Sibiya's study found that SP did mitigate MetS by activating the antioxidant response. Currently registered for a postdoctoral fellowship in the College of Health Sciences, he enjoys making YouTube videos and doing martial arts which keep him fit and healthy and keeps his mind sharp’.

Words:MaryAnn Francis

Photograph: Abhi Indrarajan