Hypertension, commonly known blood pressure, is one of the chronic non-communicable medical conditions that affect millions of people across the globe. Experts warned, long before Covid-19 pandemic that if not addressed, this could overwhelm and negatively impact the sustainability of the national healthcare systems and the economy of the country.
Two years ago it was estimated that 42% to 54% of South Africans were suffering from hypertension and this figure is expected to surge exponentially. Wits University conducted a study around the same time revealing that South Africa has the highest prevalence of hypertension on the continent, as well as the largest number of people whose blood pressure is still not controlled, even while on treatment.
Researchers are working tirelessly to find therapies and possible cure for the deadly condition. Dr Lizelle Lubbe, a post-doctoral research fellow in structural biology at the University of Cape Town (UCT), is one of those involved in the crusade. Lubbe said she hopes her research journey will help inspire other young Africans particularly women to pursue a career in science.
Structural biology is explained as the study of protein structures using physics-based techniques such as X-ray crystallography and cryo-electron microscopy, often at synchrotron radiation facilities abroad. These structures provide vital insight into how a protein performs its biological function or causes disease, and how therapies can be designed.
Lubbe said she finds it “very rewarding and motivating” that even if she is working behind the scenes and not directly involved with patients, her research “has the potential to yield new therapies and improve their lives”.
Lubbe’s research focuses on determining the structure of a blood-pressure-regulating protein called angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) to guide the design of antihypertensive drugs. She believes her research will help improve and strengthen the existing therapies particularly their safety. This is because some patients experience life-threatening swelling below the skin surface, which could obstruct breathing, she observed.
She said she wants young people to pursue structural biology, which isn’t widely studied in Africa, adding that the discipline is currently at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19. Structural biology researchers are studying the interaction of the SARS-CoV-2 spike with a protein related to ACE, she added.
“I hope that this will serve as an inspiration for young scientists to dream big and imagine how they can contribute to the eradication of other diseases in Africa,” said Lubbe.
It was during her undergraduate years that Lubbe got intrigued by proteins and how they can be targeted to treat disease. She said her move to UCT was due to Professor Edward Sturrock. The current head of the department of integrative biomedical sciences, Sturrock is involved in a research focusing on designing novel drugs to target a blood-pressure-regulating protein for the treatment of hypertension (or high blood pressure) and heart disease.
Lubbe completed her BSc (Med) (Hons) in Medical Biochemistry in 2012 under Sturrock’s supervision. It was during that year that she was also exposed to a large variety of disciplines within the biomedical field, one of which was structural biology. She continued with her PhD research in Sturrock’s laboratory but this time around co-supervised by Professor Trevor Sewell from UCT’s Aaron Klug Centre for Imaging and Analysis. Lubbe described Professor Sewell as an expert in structural biology and credits his mentorship as having enabled her to branch into the discipline.
In 2018 while completing her PhD thesis, Lubbe joined the Global Challenges Research Fund Synchrotron Techniques for African Research and Technology (GCRF START) programme as a postdoctoral research fellow. The programme is funded through the United Kingdom’s (UK) Science and Technology Facilities Council through the GCRF.
The grant enabled her to repay her student loan while doing the work she so loves. “GCRF START is a revolutionary project which has unlocked growth in Africa and allowed us to leapfrog the traditional challenges like [the] lack of funding for consumables, access to infrastructure and access to training,” said Lubbe.
“It’s very exciting to be in structural biology right now [as] new methods, instruments and software are … making huge strides in pushing the limits of the details we can observe, especially in the field of cryo-electron microscopy, which has only recently become available at UCT at an internationally competitive level,” said Lubbe, who is now conducting research in collaboration with Sturrock, Sewell and Dr Jeremy Woodward from UCT’s Electron Microscope Unit.
Lubbe works closely with her counterparts and makes sure she has her fingers on the pulse about her sector. She has since started a “collaborative network” of structural biologists in Africa and the UK. A large proportion of the South African group within the network are women, and these include UCT’s Dr Lauren Arendse, Sylva Schwager, Lynn Wambua, Naadia van der Bergh, Melissa Marx, Lenye Dlamini, Rani Wiswedel and Professor Virna Leaner.
Inspiring the next generation
Lubbe believes scientists must engage with the public and ensure gender diversity and growth in the field. By engaging, scientists can uplift communities in need and inspire the next generation. “It is especially important for us to challenge gender biases and serve as role models so that more women and girls will consider careers in science,” said Lubbe.
Lubbe added that the GCRF START grant has demonstrated that, despite the challenges facing the continent, such as a lack of resources, it is possible for Africans to perform research that is on par with that of international laboratories and that will improve healthcare.
She believes an increase in trained structural biologists means more capacity to design therapies for treatment of numerous diseases prevalent in Africa. This is why Lubbe is actively involved in a collaborative outreach programme between GCRF START and the Keiskamma Art Project, which aims to make the output of the scientists more accessible to the general public through art.