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Young scientist gains global recognition with virus research

Durban-born scientist Dr Sandile Cele received a special ministerial Batho Pele excellence award for his contribution to Covid-19 research in South Africa, with the 35-year-old’s work on the Beta and Omicron variants helping propel the country to the forefront of research on the virus.

Cele is the scientist credited with growing both Beta and Omicron in record time as the world reeled under lockdown pressure.

Biénne Huisman writes in Spotlight that in 2020, in a Durban laboratory, there had been dancing and scientists jumping for joy when Cele realised they had finally successfully “grown” the SARS-CoV-2 Beta variant. It was the holiday season and he and a few colleagues had sacrificed their Christmas to continue research at an otherwise deserted lab.

The Beta variant (501Y.V2) was first detected in the Eastern Cape in October 2020 and announced to the public on 18 December that year.

“It was December … Tulio (Professor Tulio de Oliveira) had just flagged the beta variant and we had been struggling trying to grow it, really struggling for about two weeks,” says Cele. “But then as a scientist, you have to think outside the box and eventually it (the virus) did catch on. I was with Professor Alex Sigal that day in the laboratory. We were so excited. There was a lot of dancing  …”

The moment of fulfilment

Cele said growing the beta variant had been the moment of greatest fulfilment in his career so far.

“It was a crazy moment, it was really special.”

At the time, they were leaping with joy inside PPE (personal protective equipment), including specialised masks, double gloves, plastic sleeves, and boots. Cele points out that due to all the safety measures in place, infection risk was smaller in their lab than at an average mall.

He was working inside a state-of-the-art biosafety level 3 (BSL-3) laboratory at the Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI), on the third floor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s medicine building.

In the same eight-storey building, on the first floor, De Oliveira had been studying virus samples for genetic clues at KRISP, the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform, from where the discovery of Beta and Omicron was first announced.

How he did it

Cele said viruses are isolated or “outgrown” by infecting cells in the laboratory, using swab samples from infected individuals.

“Growing a virus simply means isolating it from an infected host (humans) and making more of it in the lab for research purposes. You cannot study a virus within an infected person, especially a new virus. You need to have it in the lab for identification and clarification. Usually, you get small quantities from an infected person, thus you have to expand or grow – or make more of it – for research.”

However, the Beta variant had not responded like previous SARS-CoV-2 variants. At the time, Cele found a creative solution using both human and monkey cell lines. First, he infected human cell lines with the beta variant, incubating the assay for four days. Then he used the infected human cell lines to infect monkey cell lines, which successfully led to production of the virus.

Their moment of triumph arrived when they noticed the monkey cell lines starting to die, meaning the virus was growing. The isolated virus could then be used in the lab to run experiments, like testing vaccine efficacy.

“Looking at the cells under the microscope, you can see them starting to die,” he says. “That they’re not happy. That they have been infected, which then obviously needed to be confirmed.”

While Cele’s Durban mentors – De Oliveira and Sigal – kept the public abreast of research developments, the young scientist kept his head down, poring over his microscopes. “The world was going crazy, but I had work to do,” he says.

Rising star

From Ndwedwe, a rural area 40km outside Durban, Cele joined Sigal’s laboratory team at the AHRI in 2014, where he studied HIV drug resistance and later Covid-19. His PhD obtained from UKZN in 2021 focused specifically on understanding the Beta variant and its escape from antibodies.

“Prof Sigal really took a chance on me,” he says. “Because on that post for a laboratory technologist, they stipulated they wanted someone with three years’ experience. And I had only been doing my internship (at the Technology Innovation Agency) for eight months.”

But Sigal’s faith paid off, and he subsequently praised Cele in national press interviews on Covid-19, calling him “a rising star”.

Last year, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation invited Cele to present his findings at the Grand Challenges Annual Meeting in Brussels, and earlier this year, he was named one of the Mail & Guardian’s 200 trailblazing young South Africans in the technology and innovation category.

At the time, he could not attend the gala event as he was at the University of Nairobi in Kenya in training for a project involving HIV research for the Aurum Institute.

He started a new job at the Aurum Institute in Johannesburg in March.

Loss and grief

Cele grew up one of 10 boys born to his father, who was away from home often for work. Growing up in a mud hut without electricity or running water, he recalls how his mother would get up early every morning to prepare vetkoek to sell at a local school, and to boil water so her children could have a bath before school.

In the afternoons, he would look after his father’s goats and play soccer.

From Grade 9 on, he attended school in Durban, at Overport Secondary School.

“Before my mother died, she sat us down and said, one day I will be gone and I want you to know there are no shortcuts in life. Work hard and look after one another and you will be okay.”

His mother’s death was sudden, after complications from minor surgery, and the year after she died, his matric marks suffered.

“I wasn’t really studying, I couldn’t concentrate,” he says.

Studying biology was almost a random choice. He had applied to study at UKZN only in October of his matric year – with admissions to most of the university’s courses having closed the previous month. He picked one of the last remaining options – biology.

But the young student quickly started excelling, and obtained his BSc Biomedical Sciences degree with a Dean’s commendation and his Honours in Medical Microbiology, summa cum laude. He completed his Masters in Biochemistry with an upper-class pass.

Cele’s driving passion is to advance public healthcare, which he will continue to do at the Aurum Institute – an organisation that does research into Africa’s TB and HIV response.

 

Spotlight article – Growing the beta variant – young scientist remembers the day they danced in the lab (Creative Commons Licence)

 

See more from MedicalBrief archives:

 

Cross-neutralisation of variants in convalescent plasma — small SA study

 

Pfizer course may have only 23% efficacy against. Omicron — Small Durban study

 

Omicron variant: Clinical severity and hospitalisation profile in South Africa

 

 

 

 

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