“I did my PhD on an industrial-type project, but I realised I didn’t want to work on things that helped rich companies get richer,” says Dr Grant Theron, a 30-year-old researcher who earned his doctorate in 2010 and has gone on to do world-class research that has been published in leading journals.
Capetonian Theron’s interest in biology and genetics was born from the excitement about the human genome project while he was still at school and he was encouraged by good teachers.
“Most of my work since my PhD has been on TB diagnostics,” he says. Tuberculosis is a major threat in South Africa, a fellow-traveller of HIV that is rapidly becoming drug resistant.
“TB used to be difficult to diagnose – the diagnostic technique relied on growing the bacteria, a process that took six weeks. During that time, of course, the patient would get sicker and could potentially spread the disease.”
Theron has been studying new ways of diagnosing TB patients, enabling healthcare workers to make a swifter diagnosis and start people on treatment immediately. He has generated an amazing number of published papers, along with colleagues at the Lung Infection and Immunity Unit at the University of Cape Town, where he is a senior scientist. At the end of 2012, he was awarded that year’s Health Sciences Faculty Best Publication Award for a manuscript published in the scientific journal Clinical Infectious Diseases titled: “The use of an automated quantitative polymerase chain reaction (Xpert MTB/RIF) to predict the sputum smear status of tuberculosis patients.”
More recently, Theron has focused on how TB is transmitted. “It’s a huge issue, especially because of multiple drug resistant TB. It is 3% of the TB disease burden, but consumes 40% of the total TB drug budget.”
It looks as though this prolific young researcher will be adding to our understanding of TB for some time to come. “Cape
Town is a fantastic place to research TB – there’s a lot of the disease here, combined with really good academic infrastructure.”
— Mandi Smallhorne