CHDRU Director, A/Prof Liesl Zühlke, Wins Prestigious African Research Leader Award

15 Oct 2018
CHDRU Director Associate Professor Liesl Zühlke
15 Oct 2018

Children's Heart Disease Research Unit (CHDRU) Director and paediatric cardiologist, Associate Professor Liesl Zühlke, has recently won the prestigious SA Medical Research Council/UK Department of International Development (MRC/DFID) African Research Leader Award. The award, valued at £750 000 (R14.565 million) over 5 years, will assist Prof Zühlke in continuing her research on children with heart disease in Africa, in partnership with Prof Bernard Kheavney (UK) as well as local partners; Prof Mark Engel, Dr Gasnat Shaboodien, Prof Raj Ramasar, Prof Mpiko Ntsekhe, Dr Blanche Cupido and Prof Ntobeko Ntusi.

The MRC/DFID jointly funded scheme aims to strengthen research leadership across sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) by attracting and retaining exceptionally talented individuals who will lead high quality programmes of research on key global health issues pertinent to SSA.

“There is a great need to focus on children with heart disease in Africa, an undeserved area of need”, says Liesl. The research, which will include large-scale programmes of work which incorporate clinical, genetic, cost-effectiveness and quality improvement projects, aims to bring renewed focus to children with heart disease in Africa.

“We will examine specific scientific questions relating to healthcare delivery and how diseases occur, which are directed towards providing better care for children with heart disease in Africa. We plan to work on three heart diseases causing major health problems in millions of children and young adults in Africa and other parts of the developing world”, says Liesl.

It will build on the current work being done by Prof Zühlke and will tackle three unmet needs in children with heart disease. The first is rheumatic heart disease (RHD), where children develop sore throats caused by a bacterial infection with an organism called Group A Streptococcus (GAS). A third of sore throats in children is caused by GAS, and children living in conditions of poverty, overcrowding and repeated infection, are particularly vulnerable due to weakened immune systems. The next area of focus is those children born with heart problems, congenital heart disease (CHD). The third area of focus will be cardiac diseases (CD) associated with HIV/ART. HIV can affect many different aspects of cardiovascular health including causing weakness of the heart muscle and heart failure.

All these studies will have several sample groups (cohorts) in each of the research areas. The results achieved by Prof Zühlke and her team will be linked to capacity building in five other African countries (Namibia, Malawi, Egypt, Zambia and Ghana) and will attempt to provide new datasets, novel genetic explorations and facilitate post-graduate studies in all six (including our own) countries.

The key areas of impact include the advancement in scientific and health knowledge; development of clinical, imaging and laboratory expertise in Africa; addressing the contribution of RHD, CHD and HIV associated heart disease to adverse outcomes in children and young people's health; delivering highly skilled people to the labour market in participating countries; engaging the public on the value of prompt diagnosis and treatment in GAS infection and facilitating their uptake of services; conducting patient and family-informed and accountable research; consolidating international and continental networks; and direct improved patient benefit in a transitional country.

Prof Liesl Zühlke has received numerous awards over the years including a US National Institutes of Health Fogarty Fellowship, an academic excellence award from the Discovery Foundation, a Welcome Clinical Disease Initiative Fellowship award as well as the Hamilton Naki Clinical Scholarship, an award given to clinical scholars of excellence. She is NRF-rated and has over 100 publications to date.