UCT medical research on the world stage

28 Aug 2019 - 10:30

Dr Sheetal Silal and Professor Elmi Muller at the UCT IdeasLab on innovative research into infectious diseases at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting.

Three researchers from the University of Cape Town (UCT) recently hosted an IdeasLab on innovative research into infectious diseases at the World Economic Forum’s 13th Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2019 in Dalian, China.

Convened during July under the theme ‘Leadership 4.0: Succeeding in a New Era of Globalisation’, the meeting brought together a powerful 1 800-strong global audience of industry leaders, chief executives of top-ranked multinational corporations, ministers and heads of government, and leaders from media, academia and civil society. The goal was to explore the influence of technological changes on global economic, political, societal and environmental challenges.

Professor Elmi Muller (transplant surgeon and head of UCT’s Division of General Surgery), Dr Nadia Ikumi (AXA Research Fellow at UCT’s Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine) and Dr Sheetal Silal (head of the Modelling and Simulation Hub, Africa at UCT’s Department of Statistical Sciences) made up the only team from an African university to participate in this high-profile meeting.


“It was also an incredible opportunity to network globally. I had high expectations before the meeting, and yet, I was still surprised by the profile of people I spoke to.”

At an IdeasLab titled ‘Smart Approaches to Fighting Infectious Disease with the University of Cape Town’, they each presented an area of their research in a fast-paced six-minute PechaKucha storytelling format (20 slides shown for 20 seconds each) followed by a longer form discussion. They also hosted an Ask About session later the same day: a slower paced presentation format followed by a Q&A with the audience.

“The Annual Meeting of New Champions is a high-profile exhibition of scientific and political thinking in the world,” Silal said. “In many ways one gets a glimpse of the future, in terms of technological and scientific advancement in the context of global political strategy. It also serves as a benchmark to judge one’s own progress.

“It was also an incredible opportunity to network globally. I had high expectations before the meeting, and yet, I was still surprised by the profile of people I spoke to.”

“Interacting with some of the world’s greatest leaders and standing on the shoulders of giants for the very first time in a deeply warm and welcoming culturally-rich China was a fantastic experience and definitely a jolt ahead towards my dream of becoming a global leader in research,” said Ikumi.

According to Muller, the meeting was one of the best she has attended. “The format of the meeting was very different to that of the medical meetings I usually attend – it was very exciting to see.”

The only all-female panel

According to the UCT team, their IdeasLab – one of 10 at the meeting – was very well-attended and they enjoyed special recognition as an all-female panel.

“The moderator of our session said it was the first time he had ever seen an IdeasLab session with three female speakers,” Muller said.

In her presentation, Muller discussed innovative ways to address the dire shortage of organ donors. “We can ethically transform transplantation’s future by using new technology to use previously discarded organs, existing technology to expand the donor pool and investing in future technology – such as stem cell research, transgenic pigs and 3D printing – to make sure that more organs become available to patients who need life-saving treatment.”

Muller went on to highlight how HIV-positive organ transplantation (from an HIV-positive donor to an HIV-positive recipient) can increase the donor pool, a solution she pioneered in South Africa. 

Professor Elmi Muller’s presentation at the UCT IdeasLab: ‘Pioneering HIV-positive organ transplantation’.

The novelty of Silal’s mathematical modelling research to solve current problems in disease management, particularly in the context of data availability and high-performance computing, generated a lot of interest.

“The IdeasLab format lends itself particularly well to teams from academic institutions, allowing stimulating discussion around the innovations presented. As a result of my presentation, there were a lot of questions and discussions directed to me in many of the other sessions that I attended,” said Silal. “I was also invited to private sessions hosted by the World Health Organization.”

Dr Sheetal Silal from the UCT Department of Statistical Sciences presented about her work modelling the dynamics of infectious disease.

The focus of Ikumi’s presentation was the human placenta and its immune signatures in the context of HIV exposure. She explained how studying this transient organ could help to understand the risks to babies in utero – and ultimately develop treatments.

“The interactive discussions after my presentation led to new collaborations on ways to study this intricate organ and brought to light the bottleneck that exists in translating our science to the audience outside our laboratory,” Ikumi explained. “One of the key concerns was why we need to place more emphasis on the human placenta, following the great success we have had in prevention of HIV mother to child transmission.”

UCT's Dr Nadia Ikumi’s presentation was titled ‘Revealing life’s vital link: the placenta’.

Story: Birgit Ottermann

Photos: WEF