Employing institution: Stellenbosch University, South Africa

Host institution: University of Surrey, UK

Project title: Characterising macrophages in term placentae exposed to maternal HIV and human cytomegalovirus co-infection.

Dr Ojwach obtained her PhD degree in virology from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. She explored how HIV changes its genetic make-up to evade recognition by the immune system. This knowledge will be applied to maternal HIV and human cytomegalovirus (CMV) co-infection and the impact this has on the development of foetal immunity, starting by macrophage investigations in the placenta..

AREF Fellowship:

Maternal HIV, often complicated by CMV infection, can precipitate adverse pregnancy outcomes and poor infant development, the origins of which we predict occurs in-utero. These maternal co-infections may activate macrophages in the placenta giving rise to these adverse outcomes.

Dr Ojwach’s fellowship will enable in-depth investigations of macrophages using polychromatic flow cytometry, proteomics and single cell RNA sequencing at University of Surrey. This knowledge will be applied in the placenta from pre-term and term pregnancies being collected at Stellenbosch University. This cutting-edge novel research will allow her to link adverse birth outcomes with macrophage function in the placenta, providing the basis for improving the lives of women and children, specifically in Africa experiencing the brunt of HIV.

Dr Ojwach will spend six months at University of Surrey in Dr Martinez’s laboratory, in collaboration with her career mentor Emeritus Professor Siamon Gordon from the University of Oxford. She will have access to state-of-the-art equipment’s and analysis for macrophage investigations and will also benefit from soft skills training much needed for early-career researchers. The skills learnt will be used to generate pilot data with Prof. Gray at University of Stellenbosch that will enable application for future grants.

“Capacity building through fellowships like AREF and generation of cutting-edge research will transform Africa into a knowledge-based and innovation-led continent.”