Tuesday, 21 May, 2024
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From Cameroon to cutting-edge TB research at UCT

UCT Professor Muki Shey's passion for finding health solutions in resource-constrained settings was ignited by his own background, including childhood sickness. In Cameroon, he says, “it is payment before service – so even if people get to health centres they often can’t afford to pay for medical help when they get there”.

This piqued his interest “to see how can we make this better: how do we improve health, especially in such remote areas?”, he told Biénne Huisman from Spotlight.

Fast forward to 9 March this year, when the South African Medical Research Council (MRC) conveyed on Shey a silver award for his “outstanding contribution to health research”.

Great ambitions

At UCT, Shey’s goal is to help create a vaccine that reliably prevents tuberculosis (TB) in adults.

Presently, only the BCG (Bacillus Calmette-Guérin) shot is available for TB and while it prevents severe TB in children, there is little evidence that it works in adults.

The WHO estimates that TB led to an estimated 1.6m deaths in 2021, with 98% of cases occurring in low- and middle-income countries where resources are limited.

Since 2018, Shey has spearheaded research into TB in healthcare workers from around Cape Town, scanning for those who, with more than five years of high exposure to the disease at hospitals or clinics, have never been infected.

“So we want to look into these individuals with natural resistance, to see how they naturally work to protect themselves. And then, how we can use that information to make a better vaccine,” says the 43-year-old scholar from Nkumkov-Nseh in North West Cameroon.

Inside Shey’s office, a large placard bears testimony to the study. It is titled: “Mycobacteria-specific cytokine and antibody responses in healthcare workers with resistance to Mycobacterium tuberculosis infection”.

In Shey’s study, they assessed more than 850 healthcare workers – 132 have no evidence of infection with TB. The workers were from the Brooklyn Chest Hospital in Milnerton, the Khayelitsha District Hospital, the Mitchells Plain Hospital, the DP Marais Hospital in Retreat, some community clinics, and medical wards at academic hospitals Groote Schuur and Tygerberg.

Similar research studies are ongoing at the Aurum Institute in Johannesburg and in Kampala, Uganda. “In Uganda, they’re looking at household contacts of TB patients who don’t get infected in families where there is high exposure of TB. In Johannesburg, they’re looking at gold mines – at mine workers who have been exposed for a long time and who also have not been infected in that time. So we’re all trying to answer a similar question from different angles.”

Giving back

Shey believes in giving back in appreciation for what he has achieved, and he and a dozen or so other scientists from Cameroon, Zimbabwe and Nigeria – collectively known as the All-Africa Academic Alliance – arrange sponsors, and contribute financially themselves, to buy schoolchildren book vouchers, school uniforms and cash prizes for various academic honours.

Shey is the president and events co-ordinator of the alliance, which has gifted incentives at Fezeka High School in Gugulethu for a decade for 12 subjects, including mathematics, physical sciences, social sciences, English and business studies – while also providing pupils with opportunities to shadow scientists at tertiary institutions in fields ranging from medicine to engineering.

Shey describes his own journey from Nkumkov to Cape Town as a miracle – which is why he wants to give back.

He is also a member of another charitable organisation – Bui Family Union South Africa – which runs projects to help the children of refugees and orphans in Cape Town, while assisting in bringing medical care to his home town in Cameroon. Among other things, he says they helped a medical facility in Nkumkov buy six medical beds and basics like paracetamol.

Political unrest interrupted construction but the centre was recently completed.

A hustle and a triumph

The youngest of four children, Shey said his parents were local farmers who did not attend school. Deathly malaria in the area sparked his early dreams to work in medicine, compounded when he contracted chicken pox at the age of eight.

Then, the nearest health facility was three to four hours away by foot, but his parents did not even carry their sick son there, as they couldn’t afford any treatment. Over two months of taking traditional treatments, he healed.

When he was in grade nine, Shey’s parents could no longer afford for him to continue school. His older brother, Charles Shey Wiysonge, then a medical student on a Cameroonian Government scholarship, used his grant money to pay for Shey to finish school and do a degree in biochemistry at the University of Yaoundé, in the Cameroonian capital.

Later, Wiysonge headed to South Africa to continue his medical studies at UCT, and then was employed at Groote Schuur under the late Professor Bongani Mayosi. He studied part-time towards a PhD in Medical Microbiology, focusing on childhood vaccination.

Shey then enrolled at UCT for an Honours degree in Infectious Diseases in 2005.

“So my brother Charles was paying for himself and for me,” says Shey. “Even when I came to South Africa, he paid for a part of my Honours degree. But I was hustling too. I was going to school from Monday to Friday and then on weekends, on Saturdays, I would take a train to Retreat, walking around selling belts and wallets, and cellphone covers. That’s how I paid a part of my honours. Luckily, I then got a scholarship that paid for my Master’s and my PhD.”

In December 2012, Shey and Wiysonge received their PhDs at UCT on the same day.

Putting smiles on children’s faces

Today, Shey is an infectious disease immunologist and an associate professor serving as a chief research officer at UCT’s Department of Medicine at the Faculty of Health Sciences adjacent to Groote Schuur.

“My goal is to contribute to developing a vaccine that will be widely available worldwide, saving lives,” he says. “I work as hard as I can to achieve that because sometime – maybe in the next 10 years, 15 years, 20 years – it will happen.”

Meanwhile, Wiysonge is a professor affiliated to both SU and UCT, and the senior director of Cochrane South Africa at the MRC.

The two brothers are paying to put the eight children of their two sisters through school back in Cameroon. “What is R1 000 in my bank account when I can put a smile on a child’s face?” says Shey.

 

Spotlight article – Face to face: Prof Muki Shey on his journey from Cameroon to doing cutting-edge TB research (Creative Commons Licence)

 

See more from MedicalBrief archives:

 

Century-old BCG vaccine prevents TB in children, not adults – Boston meta-analysis

 

Candidate TB vaccine appears safe and immunogenic in treated patients

 

Encouraging results from SA TB vaccine trial

 

 

 

 

 

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