SU-Cameroon partnership strengthens HIV research

Dr Graeme Jacobs
Due to Stellenbosch University's strong engagement with the rest of Africa, the institution boasts bilateral agreements with 26 higher education institutions on the continent. These partnerships, which are developed and nurtured by SU International's Centre for Collaboration in Africa, have provided many invaluable opportunities and benefits for students and staff over the years.  
One example is Dr Graeme Jacobs, a senior lecturer and research scientist in SU's Division of Medical Virology in the Department of Pathology, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences. Jacobs, who was appointed under the New Generation of Academics Programme (nGAP), has enjoyed a fruitful collaboration with a researcher from the University of Yaoundé I in Cameroon since 2014. “I have been involved in HIV/Aids research since my postgraduate years," he says. He is an SU alumnus, having obtained a BSc in Molecular and Cellular Biology and both his honours and master's qualifications in Medical Virology at Stellenbosch, and holds a PhD in Life Sciences (Medical Virology) from the University of Würzburg in Germany. “My main focus has been on HIV diversity and resistance in South Africa and Africa – I am interested in how certain resistance-associated mutations influence treatment outcomes."  
His chance encounter with a Cameroonian researcher, Dr George Ikomey, at a meeting of the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO) in Stellenbosch in February 2011 has resulted in a long-term HIV research collaboration between the two. “I work closely with Dr Ikomey, an immunology expert from the Centre for the Study and Control of Communicable Diseases at the University of Yaoundé I. Although our collaboration centres on HIV, we also have a shared interest in hepatitis, human papillomavirus (HPV), tuberculosis and other infectious diseases," Jacobs explains. “We soon realised we had very similar research interests and have since formed a close friendship with constant communication between us."  
The collaboration between these two prolific African researchers has yielded a range of joint publications, conference presentations, research visits, postgraduate capacity-building and student exchange opportunities. “Our most recent work was to test different antiretroviral treatment regimens for the Cameroonian population in order to help with optimal treatment options for infected patients," says Jacobs.  
Jacobs credits their success in large part to SU's formal partnership with the University of Yaoundé I: “SU has been extremely supportive, especially through the African Collaboration Grant, which allows for research visits. In addition, students have had the opportunity to travel between the two institutions, which was facilitated largely by SU International. This has helped us grow tremendously." 
The African partnership has also played an important part in broadening Jacobs's research horizons. “As an HIV researcher, I find working in Cameroon extremely interesting. In South Africa, we mostly find HIV-1 subtype C, but in Cameroon, which many consider the birthplace of HIV crossover infections from chimpanzees, they have many different, recombinant strains. This means that their HIV epidemic looks much different from ours, affording us access to a variety of HIV strains found nowhere elsewhere in the world." Their access to multiple strains of the virus, Jacobs believes, offers them a better understanding of the genetic variability of HIV and, therefore, a better chance of developing improved diagnostic assays relevant to all HIV strains. 
According to Nico Elema, manager of the Centre for Collaboration in Africa, SU's partnership with the University of Yaoundé 1 was formalised in November 2013 in a bilateral agreement. “SU's partnership development often builds on existing academic contacts, as in the case of Drs Jacobs and Ikomey. Our aim is to create an enabling environment for research activities with other African countries by supporting partnership development and offering mobility programmes and grants." 
Birgit Ottermann