South Africa: Tackling Lupus From the 'Cathedral of Science'

The Department of Paediatrics & Child Health's Dr Kate Webb is the second recipient from the University of Cape Town (UCT) to be selected for the prestigious Crick African Network's African Career Accelerator (CAN ACA) awards. During her two-year fellowship, Webb will explore ways to tackle lupus within African populations and contribute to the global knowledge base about the disease.

Launched in 2018, the CAN ACA awards help postdoctoral researchers make the transition to leading their own research groups in Africa. Webb will follow in the footsteps of UCT's first CAN fellow Megan Mason.

The fellowship is awarded to early-career researchers with an outstanding scientific and leadership track record who are committed to continuing their research in Africa.

With the fellowship, Webb will initiate and lead African research into systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), commonly known as lupus.

The research project will be based at UCT's Paediatric Rheumatology division with Associate Professor Chris Scott, co-supervised by Professor Clive Gray from UCT's Division of Immunology and Professor George Kassiotis from The Francis Crick Institute in London (affectionately known as the Crick).

Local research

The team will work on collecting RNA transcription data from African people with lupus, to better understand how the disease affects local people. "SLE is a disease that is more common and more severe in African people, but there is almost no research on [it]," said Webb.

"There is no known cause and no known cure, and there is an urgent need for research that is inclusive of African patients and focuses on their needs."

"SLE is a disease that is more common and more severe in African people, but there is almost no research on [it]."

Webb's research group will also investigate potential novel treatments, including repurposing HIV drugs, and, for the first time, compare African SLE patients to their Western counterparts.

"We're looking at novel therapies that are applicable to our patients, that are affordable, sustainable and safe," she said.

While continuing to care for her patients in Cape Town, Webb will split her time between UCT and the Crick. She will also have to juggle the role of mother to a three-year-old.

Fortunately, she said, UCT and the Crick have been "very supportive" and accommodating of her multiple roles as clinician, researcher and mother.

In addition to their support, the two institutions have provided her with world-class facilities and resources.

Realising a goal

"I've really got the best of both worlds."

During her fellowship, she will receive intensive and advanced training, support and mentorship. And at the Crick, she will have access to some of the world's best scientists, fully stocked laboratories and 14 science and technology platforms, among other resources and facilities.

"I am really excited. I've been to the Crick and it is an amazing place. They call it a cathedral of science," Webb said.

But most of her excitement lies in bringing her research home.

After spending five years in London studying for her PhD, she was eager to return to South Africa, to share what she had learnt and continue her research. But grants were hard to come by and it was beginning to look as if her dream would not be realised.

"This has really been a realisation of a goal," said Webb.

"I wanted to be able to do research for my patients in Cape Town ... I think I am most excited to be able to pursue that."

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