‘Yes, we CAN!’ Second career-boosting opportunity for translational scientists

31 Oct 2023
31 Oct 2023
12 October 2023 | STORY JOHN WOODLAND | PHOTO Migal Vanas Photography

An imbalance exists between well-resourced laboratories in the Global North and the relative scarcity of research skills and infrastructure in Africa. This is in spite of the fact that our continent faces a disproportionately high burden of disease which is set to worsen as the effects of climate change become apparent. Consequently, the Crick Africa Network (CAN) was established in 2017 as an equitable partnership with institutions across the continent to enable African scientists working in Africa to contribute directly to tackling these challenges.

CAN promo video

Since then, 18 CAN Fellows have progressed through the programme, building their careers as independent scientists and furthering their research projects in the infectious diseases arena. Outputs have ranged from dozens of academic publications and grants secured to the successful supervision of scores of postgraduate students, laying the foundation for the next generation of African scientists.

Now, thanks to a £7.5 million investment from LifeArc, the self-funded charitable medical research organisation, a new round of CAN Fellows will be established to receive support for five years, with a shift towards translational research. “CAN2” will offer African Career Acceleration (ACA) Fellowships for postdoctoral biomedical researchers, who demonstrate the potential to become translational researcher leaders in Africa. The Fellowships will be used to develop their research into translational scientific programmes and establish their own research groups, enabling them to continue their careers on the African continent.

CAN2 Fellows will receive four years of funding and must be hosted at one of five African partner institutions, of which the University of Cape Town (UCT) is one. Importantly, the focus will be on translational research that bridges the gap between academic research and clinical development. CAN2 Fellows will be offered mentorship and support in grant writing, research ethics and commercialisation, in addition to opportunities to utilise the world-class laboratory facilities and platforms at the Francis Crick Institute in London and LifeArc’s state-of-the-art facilities in Stevenage and Edinburgh.

“The CAN Fellowship has been invaluable to my career as a South African clinician researcher. I would not have been able to return to South Africa as a researcher without the fellowship as there is very little postdoctoral research funding for clinicians locally,” states Dr Kate Webb, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health at UCT. Dr Webb explores ways to tackle lupus within African populations, contributing to the global knowledge base of the disease. “I have used the fellowship to collect extremely rare and valuable samples and data in a neglected field, leveraged it to get local funding, published high-impact papers, and set up a laboratory research group while establishing myself as a local clinical and research leader.”

Dr Webb is one of four UCTbased “CAN1” recipients, all of whom speak highly of the value of the CAN Fellowships in impacting their research trajectory. “The CAN Fellowship has undoubtedly been a tremendous and deeply appreciated stepping stone for me to advance my career,” says Dr Ursula Rohlwink, an Associate Professor in the Division of Paediatric Neurosurgery whose work focuses on understanding the mechanisms underlying brain injury due to trauma or tuberculosis (TB) infection. “During the time of my CAN Fellowship, I was able to apply for and secure a Wellcome International Intermediate Fellowship which will support me and my research for five years. This fellowship builds on the work of my CAN project and involves collaborative work with the Crick [the Francis Crick Institute] and I am delighted to maintain my visiting scientist status there for the next five years.”

Also investigating the biology of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the causative agent of TB, is Dr Mandy Mason of UCT’s Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine (IDM). By investigating a wide range of bacteria with mutations, Dr Mason hopes to find some that are more susceptible to both new and existing drugs – which may open up new ways to prevent and treat TB. “CAN represents an opportunity for African scientists to connect with one another across countries and institutions to form collaborations that are founded in our aligned aspirations for scientific endeavours to have a positive impact on our countries and peoples, an understanding of the challenges intrinsic to our African cohort of researchers, and equilateral friendships that are developed though through the facilitation of the network.”

Finally, Dr Suraj Parihar, based in CIDRI-Africa (the Wellcome Centre for Infectious Disease Research in Africa), is interested in the function of a special gene called IFITM1 that is important in the host immune response to TB and other infectious diseases such as listeriosis. “The CAN Fellowship enabled me to establish a research programme and assemble a team of talented researchers. This fellowship is unique in providing an opportunity to work at the Francis Crick Institute and additional resources to enhance soft skills. During my CAN Fellowship, I established independent collaborations and networks within Africa and the UK through the annual meetings and my visit to the Crick. This fellowship also allowed me to drive independent research distinct from my mentors and receive independent research grants while maintaining long-term collaborations.”

Why should young researchers apply for CAN2? According to Dr Parihar: “I strongly recommend and encourage early-career researchers to apply for CAN2 since it is now a much better career development programme by providing salary support for technical assistance and student stipends.” Dr Rohlwink adds: “My CAN Fellowship was a truly rewarding and supportive experience, and I would strongly encourage eager young scientists dedicated to building their research career in Africa to apply.”

Applications for the second round of CAN ACA Fellowships are open until 19 November 2023 and eligible scientists are encouraged to apply.