The ups and downs of the Kalahari dunes

Arista Botha

The Kalahari is an exceptionally beautiful place and one of my favourite places in South Africa. The rolling dunes go on and on forever. The soft sand is scattered with thorn trees, thick bushes, shrubs and stretches of golden grass that ripple in the wind like the mane of a giant lion. The air has a dry taste that leaves your lips chapped and your throat parched. The sun pelts down on the earth with a raging heat. The night, in stark contrast, is unforgivingly cold. Life here is a struggle. Food is scarce. Water even scarcer. The animals that live here face extreme fluctuations in air temperature on a daily basis. I find it incredible that this place, with its harsh terrain and extreme climate, is full of life! That, of course, makes the Kalahari the perfect place to study wildlife physiology.

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Giraffes across the dunes. Photo by Arista Botha

Gemsbok

Gemsbok. Photo by Arista Botha

Aardwolf

Aardwolf. Photo by Arista Botha

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Meerkat. Photo by Arista Botha

Recently, I was invited to assist on a research trip to the Kalahari River Reserve (or KRR). KRR is a research site just outside Van Zyl’s Rus, where researchers study meerkats, mole rats, ground squirrels, bat-eared foxes, various bird species and, now, also wildebeest.

On our first day we went out to capture wildebeest. We drove around for quite a while with no sign of any wildebeest. We had some nice game viewing: springbok, steenbok, gemsbok, red hartebeest, eland, but no wildebeest.

Gemsbok herd

Gemsbok herd. Photo by Arista Botha

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Red hartebeest. Photo by Arista Botha

Finally, we found a large herd of wildebeest. We approached them slowly with the vehicle so that Leith Meyer, our head veterinarian for the trip, could get a good shot. Once darted, the wildebeest sped off. Now the real chase began: The tranquilisers take about three to five minutes to take effect and it is difficult to keep an eye on one while the whole herd is running.

Wildebeest herd

Wildebeest herd. Photo by Arista Botha

The chase

The chase. Photo by Arista Botha

The wildebeest gave in to the effect of the drugs, decided to lie down on the soft sand and was soon fully sedated. Everyone jumped off the vehicle carrying boxes of surgical equipment to the anaesthetised animal. Field surgery has its challenges, but our veterinarians and support team are experienced and the surgery went smoothly.

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Everyone hard at work. Photo by Arista Botha

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The end of a successful day. Photo by Andrea Fuller

The wildebeest was implanted with temperature, heart rate and activity loggers and fitted with ear tags and a collar. After the surgery was completed, the wildebeest was given the antidote to the tranquiliser and he soon got up and ran off to join the rest of his herd.

We drove back to the road through the Kalahari bush, optimistic after our first success and ready to catch our next wildebeest. Suddenly a gushing of air stopped us in our tracks. We all got out to see a huge splinter in our right front tyre.

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The culprit. Photo by Arista Botha

How many vets

How many vets does it take to change a tyre? Photo by Arista Botha

After changing the tyre we drove to the workshop to get the punctured tyre patched up. While we were there we took the chance see the mole rat laboratory, which contained multiple Damaraland mole rat colonies living in see-through tunnels. It was fascinating to watch them working, cleaning out their tunnels and digging through saw dust “obstacles” to get to food. What happens when two mole rats meet each other head on in a tunnel? Easy – they simply climb over each other. Or, if they are too big to pass each other, the biggest one simply pushes the smaller one backwards. Unfortunately, the hiccup with the tyre meant that we could not capture another wildebeest that day, so we went back to our camp and ended the day with a pleasant braai. Tomorrow is another day.

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The sunrise over my rondawel. Photo by Arista Botha

The next day was indeed successful: we got two more wildebeest, and the day after that, three more! We were overjoyed with our increasing success. However, the wildebeest soon caught on to what we were up to. By the fourth day, the wildebeest recognised our vehicle and we could not get close to them. We spent the last day driving around, following wildebeest along the road, off road and over dunes: All in vain.  We had a few short moments of hope, but each time the wildebeest would speed away just as Leith got within darting range. As the sun reached the horizon we decided that our luck was out and that six wildebeest for the week could still be considered a success.

Since it was our last night we had some sundowners on the Big Dune. As we watched the sunset, we talked and laughed about our week’s successes, disappointments and surprises. From our view on top of the dune we looked out over the Kalahari with its soft sand and its thorns. The rolling dunes went up and down, and up and down…. The Kalahari sky seemed to stretch on forever. We watched the blazing sun go down. The horizon was all aflame. We felt the cold of night slowly creeping in.  As the last rays of sunlight disappeared, the first star appeared in the sky.

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First star. Photo by Arista Botha

The harsh beauty of the Kalahari reminds us why we love wildlife research, despite all the ups and downs.

Light and thorns

Thorny sunset. Photo by Arista Botha

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My internship with the Brain Function Research Group

Andani Ratshinanga

 

After doing my Honours degree in physiology at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) I swore I would never return to the university. Honours year was no joke, I tell you. So, instead of applying for a Master’s degree, I decided to apply for the DST-NRF internship, an internship programme run by the National Research Foundation in South Africa. Imagine my shock when I got placed at Wits, in the Brain Function Research Group, or BFRG, for my internship. The BFRG is the most intimidating research group in the Physiology Department, or so I thought, because of its size (it has four different labs) and large publication output. But when I started working in the BFRG I realised I had misjudged this group. As I assisted in numerous projects I started to realise how exciting the BFRG’s research was. Not to mention how friendly the people were!

One of the things I like most about this group is their coffee addiction. Let me not call it an addiction; rather a coffee enthusiasm. Whenever you enter the BFRG communal room, whoever is there will offer to make you a cup of coffee. When I came to the BFRG, I was on a coffee fast, but thanks to the BFRG coffee enthusiasts, my day now starts with a cup of coffee.

Okay, maybe their best quality is not their coffee enthusiasm, but rather their willingness to teach. For example, I now know how to work with a bomb calorimeter, which measures the energy content of food. I’ve learnt about the science behind the Morris water maze, which assesses learning ability in rats. Having helped out in the animal unit during Wildlife Conservation Physiology projects, I’ve learnt how to pack a set of surgical instruments. I am fully confident with my graph drawing skills now thanks to Emeritus Professor Duncan Mitchell and, by the end of this month, tent pitching will also be added to my list of skills.

After my introduction to the stats programme, R, during my Honours year, I was scared of learning new computer programmes. I was ready to continue the rest of my life using only Excel and Graphpad Prism. When I started helping on a Pain lab project, recording the anatomical locations of pain in people living with HIV, I was introduced to Redcap, a smart data capture package. I thought it would be R all over again. However, as we speak, I know my way around Redcap (well enough, anyway) and I have a new computer programme I can add to my list of skills. I also faced my R fears and did another course with the Group. You know what? It was easier second time round, and without the pressure of an exam, I felt I was learning it for fun.

Overall, accepting the DST-NRF internship with BFRG was the best decision I have ever made. I thought I would regret not applying for a Master’s straight away but this internship has been one of the best learning opportunities I have ever had. The research skills that I am learning will prepare me for taking on a Master’s degree next year. My knowledge of physiology gets broader every week. Every morning I wake up excited to go to work because learning has never been this much fun! EVER! Thank you to the BFRG team and the NRF for giving me this great opportunity to learn and to grow as a young black woman in science.

Who is Dr Ben Loos?

Arista Botha

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Dr Ben Loos is a Senior Lecturer at Stellenbosch University and is the head of the Neuro Research Group (NRG). He is originally from Berlin, where he finished his undergraduate studies. Then he came to Stellenbosch, where he did his honours, masters and PhD in cellular physiology. During his PhD, he studied the molecular mechanisms of cell death during ischemic injury. He also started the fluorescence imaging facility at Stellenbosch University, which is now a state of the art facility. This formed the basis of his research background. After his PhD he chose to stay and build on the work he started during his PhD, instead of doing a postdoc overseas.

Dr Ben Loos kindly agreed to do an interview ahead of the BFRG research day, where he will be the invited speaker and judge the young researcher presentation competition. I asked him a few questions and this is what he had to say:

  1. Quickly explain your research for those of us who are not experts in your field.

Autophagy is a protein degradation pathway and has received lots of attention in the last 10-15 years. It is the first stress response in cells. My specific interest lies in autophagy in neurons. Neurons have a very high protein turnover rate and when the autophagy process gets distrupted, it results in a build-up of toxic proteins, which leads to neurodegeneration. The ultimate aim is to manipulate the pathway so that we can control or predict cell death.

  1. Why did you chose to go into this field of research?

During my PhD, my supervisor, Anna-Mart Engelbrecht, gave me a paper on autophagy and said “This is going to be something new”. At the time, there was not a lot of research being done on the topic. That was a pivotal moment in my life that directed me into the field of autophagy. From there on I moved into the field of neurodegeneration.

  1. Any exciting research projects you are currently busy with?

We are currently working on live cell microscopy to accurately measure the process of autophagy. We use a technique called micropatterning, which is a way of manipulating the substrate so that the cell cultures only grow in a specific area or in a specific pattern, and then we use fluorescence imaging to observe the process of autophagy. This way we can measure time-related issues and, because it is a controlled setting, we can tweak the system to see which conditions have a protective effect on the cells.

  1. What are the big questions in your field that still need to be answered in the near future?

One big question that still needs to be answered is how to measure protein degradation activity in in vivo  models; firstly in animal models, and eventually in human patients. This would allow for clinical applications. For example, in patients with Alzheimer’s disease, which is caused by protein aggregation, how much do we need to activate autophagy to cure Alzheimer’s?

  1. Who is your role model?

There are so many, I am afraid to single out any one of them. I have a few collegues that I really look up to and from whom I have learned a lot. Two of them include Noboru Mizushima from Japan and Dan Klionsky from Michigan. Of course, Anna-Mart Engelbrecht, my former PhD supervisor, is also my role model.

  1. What do you enjoy outside of work?

I love spending time with my family. I have two boys, one and five years old. I also have many other interests and hobbies, even though I don’t get much time to practise them that often. I like music, art, nature and photography. I also really like anatomy, and one of my hobbies is to collect skulls of animals, such as springbok, from people who hunt and then construct exploded skull models.

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Exploded skull model of a carnivore

  1. Do you have any advice for postgraduate students or young academics on how to succeed in research?

To be globally competitive you need to use excellent techniques to answer important questions. Therefore, in the beginning of your career it is really important to develop niche expertise in techniques, publish in high impact journals and to be globally connected.

  1. Any last comments?

Thank you very much for this opportunity. The biomedical field is so important and it is a growing field with so many questions that still need to be answered. I guess what I am trying to say is that the biomedical field is a good field for the future.

 

It was fascinating to talk to Dr Ben Loos and I am looking forward to meeting him in person at the Brain Function Research Group Research Day. His talk titled The role of autophagy in neurodegeneration and proteotoxicity promises to be very interesting.

 

To find out more about his work, here are some of his latest publications:

WALKING WITH PANGOLINS

Wendy Panaino

The original article was published on http://anywhereinafrica.com/blog/2017/02

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A Pangolin caught in the spotlight. Photo Wendy Panaino

Field research was not something I ever imagined myself doing (partly because I didn’t even know it existed as a kid), but boy did it grow on me. The best part of my research at Tswalu Kalahari Reserve is tracking pangolins every day, and then sharing my experiences with as many people as possible. Not only do I wish to tell people my stories, but I would like all to experience them with me, with the same passion and enthusiasm that I feel when I am out doing what I love. So walk with me, as I walk with pangolins…

Here, I will not describe my typical night out, as I did here. Instead, I’d like to share one extraordinary occasion with you; an adventure where the most unexpected events happened. Having followed pangolins for well over a year now, one might think that I should know just about all there is to know about their behaviour, yet they continue to surprise me. One starry night, while waiting for a pangolin to emerge from its burrow, Dr Alexander Sliwa told me “I only started to really get to know my species (the black-footed cat) after about a year of studying them”. “Bizarre”, I thought, not realising at the time how true those words would prove for my own work.

To put the appropriate picture in mind, I want you to close your eyes for a second. Place yourself in the Kalahari semi-desert, under a dark sky illuminated by billions of stars, smudged by the Milky Way. Feel the warm breeze brushing your cheeks, hear the buzzing of the immeasurable insect life, smell the purity of raw, red earth. This is my reality every night. In what starts out as a typical night, I begin an hour-long journey to reach the home range of a female pangolin that I have been tracking for little over a year now. I stop my vehicle and scan for the elusive creature using my telemetry set, which allows me to find the pangolins tagged with tracking transmitters.

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Tracking pangolins in the kalahari. Photo by Wendy Panaino

As it is only 8pm in the middle of summer, I expect to find this female cooped up in her burrow, where I can sit and wait for her to emerge. To my surprise, the tracking equipment tells me that she is already active. I hop back into my vehicle and follow the signal in a northerly direction. I triangulate the signal, park the vehicle, grab my backpack (stashed with essentials– a flashlight, water bottle, notebook, jumper, and little bags for pangolin poop), and set off on foot into the darkness.

My heart racing and my hands gripping the telemetry gear, I listen as the signal gets stronger and stronger as I get closer to the pangolin. What a thrill – knowing that very soon I will lay eyes on one of the world’s rarest animals.

I am close now. I slow down, remind myself to breathe (I have stop breathing while straining my ears to catch the smallest noise), and then stop. GOTCHA! A sound like no other! I turn off the telemetry equipment and listen to the distinctive rustling of the scaly creature moving through the bushes. Following my ears, my eyes eventually focus on a little figure moving under the moonlight. I grin with satisfaction, my heart racing (yes, even after a year, I still get overly-excited when I see the little critter).

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A Pangonlin walking through the bushes on its nightly business of foraging on ants and termites. Photo credit Wendy Panaino

As if that was not enough, the pangolin took the opportunity to feast on a species of ant that I had not previously recorded. I frantically scribble some notes. In all my excitement, I think “what a night!”. It can’t possibly get any better than this. The night starts to settle, as does my heart rate. The pangolin starts heading in the direction of her burrow, pausing every now and then and sniffing around more than usual. As she gets closer to the burrow, she hesitates slightly, and then enters. I stand quietly for a moment, wondering why she might be acting so strangely. My gut tells me to wait and see if she decides to come out again. Half an hour later, I hear that distinct sound of scales brushing against each other as she comes back out. I give her some time so as not to scare her back into the burrow. The moon glows against her perfectly sculpted scales. I grab my notebook and start scribbling down some notes on the pangolin’s behaviour. Walk, eat, walk, eat, walk, eat – the life of a pangolin. As she becomes more comfortable with my presence, I move closer to see exactly what it is that she is eating. Ants – she LOVES ants! Could you imagine all your energy coming from tiny ants and termites? As I walk alongside this peculiar creature, with pen to paper, I shake my head in disbelief. How did I get so lucky? I get to WALK WITH PANGOLINS every day. I breathe a sigh of appreciation and continue. Suddenly I am stopped in my tracks by a sound unfamiliar to my ears. “Is that a jackal lapping water?” I ask myself, confused. But the sound is coming from the pangolin, so I edge closer to investigate. To my utter surprise, it is indeed the pangolin drinking water. The recent rains had deposited water into pockets at the bases of some black thorn bushes, and this pangolin took the opportunity to lap some of it up, something I had NEVER seen before.

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A rare sighting of a pangolin drinking water. Photo credit Wendy Panaino

I did not anticipate what happened next. In the moonlight, a tiny figure rises from behind mom, who has decided it is time to move house. I bounce up and down like a child that is about to open a Christmas gift, holding my hand over my mouth to stop myself from letting out a squeak. Is this REALLY happening? Am I REALLY watching mom bring baby out of the burrow? I am disappointed that there is nobody around to share this experience with me (I do sometimes have human company at nighy). I pull myself together and scribble more notes. Mom is as gentle as any other; she waits for baby to climb on board (yip, pangolin mothers carry their baby on their back!), and walks off. Nothing could wipe the smile off my face now. Walking side by side with TWO pangolins. Mom is perfectly comfortable having me around, and does not pause for a single moment to investigate my presence. For the next hour-and-a-half, I follow the two as they head due west. Mom does not stop to forage on this journey. She occasionally stops to allow her fallen passenger to climb back on board, but other than that, she has her mind set on a new home and nothing can distract her.

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Baby pangolin climbing onto his mother’s back. Photo credit Wendy Panaino

Eventually I decide that I should let the two carry on peacefully, without me stomping around after them. I take a step back, inhale deeply, and watch this enigmatic duo disappear into the darkness. I look up to the sky, relax my shoulders as I exhale, and release a tiny giggle. “THAT WAS AWESOME!” I exclaim. Walking back to my vehicle, I find a renewed passion burning in my heart. This experience just magnified my excitement for my work ten-fold. I look forward to spending the next year continuing with my research, being endlessly surprised, and doing what I love most… walking with pangolins.

The Sleep Lab in 3… 2… 1… Action

Chloe Flinn

“The Wits Sleep Laboratory is part of the Brain Function Research Group in the School of Physiology and is the only dedicated sleep research unit in Southern Africa.”

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An Honours student taking a selfie in the Wits Sleep Laboratory

When Marize de Klerk from JoburgToday.tv read the statement, “The Wits Sleep Laboratory… is the only dedicated sleep research unit in Southern Africa.”, she knew she had a story to share with the world. This led to a very interesting day in the Wits Sleep Lab as the crew from JoburgToday.tv came by to film us in action.

It all started off with a few awkward interviews. I’m sure most researchers can relate to the fact that we prefer to sit quietly in our labs conducting our research with no one to watch us as we do so. But Dr Karine Scheuermaier, head of the Wits Sleep Lab, started off wonderfully by introducing the type of research being conducted and the importance of researching sleep in relation to pain.

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Dr Karine Scheuermaier being interviewed by the JoburgToday.tv crew.

The film crew then turned their attention to my research. I am in the process of completing my Masters in sleep and pain physiology, but more specifically on the effect of sleep on pain in women. Therefore, we decided to demonstrate the workings of my study to best represent what it is we do. As with most sleep studies we make use of polysomnography, and with the help of one of my participants, Thobeka Ntuli, we were able to provide first-hand action of what goes down. But don’t let me keep going on about it, because why read about it when you can watch it? See the JoburgToday.tv video clip here to get the full scoop.

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The JoburgToday.TV crew filming in the Wits Sleep Laboratory.

Many people are not aware of the Wits Sleep Lab as it is tucked away in a quiet corner of the Medical School, where research subjects can get a good night’s rest right on campus. Hopefully the interest from JoburgToday.tv will enlighten many as to what the Wits Sleep Lab is about.

 

BFRG Highlights 2016

Welcome to the BFRG Highlights, our new feature, to celebrate our success of the past year and to reflect on some of the exciting developments in the Brain Function Research Group!

We started off 2016 with the very first BFRG Research Day, and hosted collaborator Romy Parker from Cape Town as our invited speaker and judge. It was great fun and a huge success, and we hope to do the same again next year. Congratulations to Anna Haw on taking home the prize for best speaker.

On the student front, many of our students made excellent progress this year:

Honours student Kristin Nel, who conducted research on ethnic variations in autonomic skin wrinkling with Peter Kamerman in the Pain Lab, says: “I truly loved the atmosphere in the BFRG lab and would choose to work with this group of professionals over and over again – thank you.”

PhD student Arista Botha from the Wildlife Conservation Physiology (WCP) team started her study on the nutritional ecology of free-living buffalo in the Kruger National Park by having 13 buffalo implanted with miniature temperature-sensitive data loggers in February 2016. Since then she’s been going back every two months to collect blood samples and carry out vegetation analyses. Arista is looking forward to removing the loggers and getting her data early next year. Arista also wrote some great blog articles on her experiences with buffalos in the bush, and on her lab work.

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A large buffalo bull can weigh close to a tonne. Photo by Arista Botha

Another WCP PhD student, Nora Weyer, was awarded a prestigious Oppenheimer Memorial Trust scholarship this year. She was also invited by the Zoological Society / Zoological Garden in Frankfurt, Germany, to present a public talk on the responses of aardvark to the hot and dry conditions in the Kalahari semi-desert. Read about Nora’s PhD research in Afrotherian Conservation and the Diamond Route Newsletter, or follow her aardvark news on Twitter. Nora finished her data collection after spending six months at the University of Cape Town analysing aardvark scats and prey abundance samples in the lab of Professor Mike Picker. She is now back in Joburg working hard at analysing her data and writing up. “It’s been another phenomenal year doing my PhD with the BFRG, and I hope that 2017 will be just as exciting!”  Good luck for the final stretch!

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Another postgraduate student  in the WCP team, Wendy Panaino, also has been conducting research in the Kalahari, on the ecophysiology of ground pangolins (read more on her blog). Aside from the blog article, she had great media coverage on her pangolins, such as this CNN video . On her highlight this year, Wendy reports that “just being surrounded by amazing people in the field of wildlife and research has been such an incredible experience in terms of how much I have learned from these people and how much I have grown.”

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A pangolin looks up from its ant meal. Photo by Wendy Panaino

Led by Nora and Wendy, our WCP team recently joined an interesting collaboration with Dr Frédéric Delsuc (University of Montpellier, France), who studies the evolution of the gut microbiome of free-living aardvarks and pangolins, and other ant- and termite-eating mammals in the Kalahari.

News from the Sleep Lab is that Chloe Flinn has been recruiting participants for her MSc research on the effect of sleep disturbance on pain sensitivity. Chloe has also had some great media attention: JoburgToday.tv visited her at Wits to film a short piece on her research project. Watch the video here, and follow Chloe’s research on facebook to find out more!

Prinisha Pillay, from the pain lab started a longitudinal project for her PhD at a new site this year and submitted her second paper from her PhD research (fingers crossed!). Next year she is looking forward to completing her data collection early in the year and submitting her thesis by December 2017.

Several of our postgraduate students successfully completed their studies in 2016:

Anna Haw, research officer, veterinarian and PhD student in the WCP team completed her PhD (read about her project here), while MSc students Stephanie de Lange (who graduated in 2015 from the University of Pretoria, co-supervised by Andrea and Anna, WCP team) and Tanusha Dukhan (Fever Lab) who graduated this year had their graduation ceremonies. Both Stephanie and Tanusha graduated with distinctions. PhD student Sean Chetty from the Pain Lab completed his PhD and will join the graduation ceremony in December. MSc students Dershnee Devan (Pain Lab) and Kirsten Redman (Sleep Lab) are in the process of completing their degrees following examination. We wish them all the best, and hope to see them on the graduations list soon!

Edward (“Ned”) Snelling, from the University of Adelaide, joined the WCP team in April as a postdoctoral fellow and was very quick off the mark in publishing papers. One of his publications had social media buzzing. Ned also started the BFRG “coffee club”, which led to the Illy coffee shop on the 4th floor of Med School doubling its profits! All of the coffee club members were delighted by the arrival a month ago of our new coffee machine in the Richard Hellon room!

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Another postdoc in the BFRG, Gaëlle Ngassa, who joined the Pain Lab last year, started recruiting patients for her project investigating epigenetic changes of HIV-associated sensory neuropathy in an African population. She has already submitted her first paper from this project to the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes, and published two others from her previous work. Next year, Gaëlle looks forward to starting her epigenetic analysis.

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Toni Wadley completed her 3-year Hillel Friedland Postdoctoral Fellowship with the Pain Lab and, following the departure of Anna Haw to Stanford for an MBA programme, took over as our BFRG Research Officer and Lecturer in the School of Physiology. In her own words: “If I had to design my best job, this would be it!” Toni has kept the BFRG running smoothly and we wish her all the best for the coming year. Her big paper from her postdoc also had great media coverage.

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Patricia Price, honorary BFRG member and collaborator in the Pain Lab, paid us a visit earlier this year and presented a talk to the School of Physiology about “An integrated study of immune recovery in HIV/HCV patients beginning ART in Indonesia”. Peter Kamerman will reciprocate next year and visit Patricia at Curtin University in Perth.

The Pain Lab has some really exciting collaborations and joint projects planned for next year. We look forward to reporting more on that in our 2017 blogs!

In the Sleep Lab, Karine Scheuermaier was on sabbatical this year giving her the opportunity to work on some collaborative research this year. She spent two month in Berlin, Germany working with her former Harvard colleague, Dr Mirjam Münch. They re-visited performance data from a study they had run together on the impact of evening light exposure on healthy older adults who complained of disrupted sleep. She also started a collaborative research study with Dr Katinka de Wet from the University of the Free State on sleep and HIV interactions. The sisters Mosilo and Mampho Machere started data collection in the Tseki clinic in Phuthaditjhaba (Qwa Qwa), braving the cold weather.  Finally, she was given an opportunity to publish with Dr Duffy on nocturia in a special circadian rhythms and aging issue of Current Aging Science.

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Lois Harden, from the fever group, was also on sabbatical this year. She undertook several collaborative projects with researchers Dr Helen Steele, from the Department of Immunology at the University of Pretoria, Prof Shabir Madhi and Dr Gaurav Kwatra, from the Respiratory and Meningeal Pathogens Research Unit (RMPRU) based at Chris Hani Baragwanath related to fever and sickness behaviour and immune responses to Groups B Streptococcus. She also helped several postgraduate students in the fever group with data collection and analysis and worked on 12 publications including both human and animal based studies.

The BFRG members also travelled and networked extensively this year. Some of the local conferences attended included the PainSA congress in Umhlanga, where Prinisha took the joint first prize for best oral presentation, the Oppenheimer De Beers Group Research Conference in Johannesburg, the Mammal Research Institute 50th Anniversary Conference at Mopani Camp in Kruger National Park, the South African Wildlife Management Association Symposium in Tzaneen, and the South African Society of Sleep Medicine conference in Johannesburg. Several of our students also participated at the Wits Health Sciences Research Day.

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Toni Wadley (far right) and the rest of the team, (from the left) Sean Chetty, Peter Kamerman, Prinisha and Dershnee Devan at the PainSA congress. (Photo by Toni Wadley)

International conferences included the Society of Experimental Biology conference in Brighton, UK, the Elsevier Inflammation symposium, Miami, Florida, the International Congress of Vertebrate Morphology, Washington, D. C., and the European Sleep Research Society Meeting in Bologna, Italy. Toni and Peter attended the World Pain Congress in Yokohama, Japan, where Peter was elected as Vice Chair of NeuPSIG, the Neuropathic Pain division of IASP (International Association for the Study of Pain).

There were also personal highlights for many members of the Group. Robyn Hetem and Maartin Strauss welcomed their second child, Ayden John, and a few days later our Honorary Research Fellows (and previous postdocs) Ian Murray and Hilary Lease introduced their son Osirus to the world. Duncan Mitchell was delighted by the arrival of his second grandson in New Zealand.

To round off the year, the Swanepoel family hosted a BFRG staff braai, and everyone joined in to celebrate a productive 2016 at the BFRG publications tea!

Next year, we will be welcoming many new members into our group. We are also excited for Duncan to be plenary speaker at the International Union of Physiological Sciences Congress in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and at the International Mammalogical Congress in Perth, Australia. There will surely be lots of exciting news in 2017, so follow us here on the blog, and on Facebook and Twitter to keep up with us throughout the year.

The BFRG Team wishes everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Human Immunodeficiency Virus – the sneaky sleep thief

Kirsten Redman

 

Stepping into the field of physiology was not something I took lightly. It was largely intimidating; hugely intimidating, in fact, especially given that I came from a microbiology background! When the option came for me to exercise my knowledge of virology in my Honours year, I jumped at the opportunity.

 

Research had already been widely conducted on HIV and sleep in other parts of the world. Indeed, with the success of highly active antiretroviral therapy (ART), HIV has increasingly taken the position as a chronic illness. And in fact, quality of life aspects have become more prominent as HIV-related life expectancy has increased. As more was discovered elsewhere, it was a shame for me to realise that not much research on sleep and HIV was being done here in South Africa. So that is where I fitted myself in – well, my supervisors created this niche, but for the purposes of this story I’ll say that I inserted myself.

 

During my Honours year, I had run a cross-sectional study in a treated HIV cohort of South African patients, which unexpectedly revealed a relationship between higher CD4 counts and poorer sleep quality. Just to give some background, having a low CD4 count is one of the markers of AIDS, and the aim of ART is, by various means, to increase CD4 counts.
This relationship was seemingly counterintuitive, because one would expect there to be better sleep quality with better immune status (higher CD4 counts), as has been shown in studies in other countries, which found that lower sleep quality was associated with lower CD4 counts. Our cohort at the time differed from other studies’ cohorts as our patients had started ART later in their disease and their baseline CD4 counts were very low. We then hypothesized that during immune reconstitution, there may have been an increased immune activation in these patients, which may explain why the higher CD4 counts were associated with worse sleep quality. So we designed a longitudinal study to see how sleep quality progressed from an ART naïve state, up until a few months on treatment. In this longitudinal study, surprisingly, we found that patients did not complain about their sleep per se but seemed to start off with high daytime sleepiness which reduced (got better) across the study. In this new study, we found no relationship with CD4 counts and sleep quality, but instead found that people who had low viral loads at the time of initiation onto ART had worse sleep than those who had high viral loads.

 

So what happened between my honours and my masters research studies?

 

First of all, my cross-sectional study patients had been diagnosed for seven years and treated on average for four years, very different from the longitudinal cohort who had just been put on treatment and for whom we had followed up ‘only’ until the 18th month, though it is possible that sleep disruption occurs after our cut-off time period. Second, as mentioned before, patients in my cross-sectional study had started their treatment late in the disease when CD4 counts had dropped below 100 cells/μl (AIDS is defined by <250 CD4 T cells/μl and below 100 cells/μl, there are higher chances of developing immune reconstitution inflammatory disease when put on ARV treatment). In our longitudinal cohort, the guidelines had changed and patients started ARVs on average around 250 CD4 counts/μl. So it is possible that what we observed in the first study was a unique effect of starting treatment so late.  In fact, current ‘reservoir’ studies (which follow HIV infection in CD4 memory T-cells) show that immune reconstitution is associated with a higher HIV reservoir load in CD4 memory cells. It is also associated with CD4 activation when treatment was started at lower CD4 counts, while there is nearly no HIV reservoir and very low CD4 activation when treatment is started when CD4 counts are still above 500 cells/μl.

 

And what about this new finding on the relationship between viral load and daytime sleepiness?

 

Currently we postulate that there is an underlying immune-mechanism affecting sleep quality. Indeed cytokines such as TNFa, Il-6, and Il1 have been shown to affect sleep quality. It may be that those who showed lower viral loads may have had a higher immune response against HIV, with concomitant higher production of cytokines, which may have led the patients to experience higher daytime sleepiness. Conversely, those with high viral loads may be those who are not able to build such a strong immune response and would have lower cytokine secretion, leading to lower daytime sleepiness. So my next step is to perform some cutting-edge (not-really) totally awesome (yes, really) cytokine analyses (actually I just ran it last week!)  and flow cytometry, assessing the different activation of the CD4 T-cells as people start treatment up until over a year on treatment and investigate its association with sleep measurements. As you can see from the picture below, I’m already on the task of telling the T-cell’s story.

 

kirsten-in-the-lab

Kirsten hard at work in the lab.

 

Believe me, nobody is more excited than me to find out what the answer is… but we’ll have to wait and see. On to PhD!!