College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

Cum laude Masters in Biochemistry graduate, Mr Sandile Mthembu.

Cum Laude Result for Biochemistry Research on Novel TB Drugs

Mr Sandile Mthembu graduated with his Masters in Biochemistry cum laude for his research on identifying an alternative drug to fight tuberculosis (TB) that will combat the rapidly rising strains of the disease that are resistant to typical first-line drugs.

Working in Professor Raymond Hewer’s laboratory under the supervision of Hewer and Dr Alexandré Delport, where a native recycling system of the bacterium that aids in virulence termed pupylation has been identified as a potential target for drug development, Mthembu conducted a preliminary study to identify small-molecule(s) capable of binding the pupylation integral protein “PafA”. This was in the hope of using these ligand(s) to develop a drug that hijacks the system for anti-TB effects.

Tuberculosis is responsible for a high disease burden in Africa, with South Africa being one of only six countries accounting for 60% of global cases. Despite the availability of an effective treatment regimen, the growing epidemic of antibiotic resistance is leading to the development of drug-resistant strains of TB.

‘We hope to alleviate this by introducing an alternative treatment option that looks to hijack the pupylation system of TB to target essential TB proteins for cell apoptosis; this would be a first in the field,’ said Mthembu, who benefited from a National Research Foundation grant-holder-linked bursary through Dr Ché Pillay.

Mthembu applied his talents to studying biochemistry thanks to a fascination with biological science from a young age when he was drawn to television shows involving forensics. Despite living in an area where he was only exposed to the careers of a medical doctor, lawyer and engineer, he still knew a vocation in something resembling molecular biology was for him.

He was inspired to study at UKZN by a weekend programme on the Westville campus that offered extra lessons to students in lower quintile schools. The campus pond also made an impression.

Mthembu served as a residence assistant and laboratory demonstrator while studying, as well as volunteering to tutor junior students and serving as a volunteer at UKZN’s Open Day and the “Be a Scientist” programmes. He said that he valued his interaction with diverse groups of people, including staff and students, and that his academic and personal growth was a testament to the benefits of such exposure.

He completed his honours in microbiology under the supervision of Professor Gueguim Evariste Kana, working on the production and optimisation of algal biomass for biofuel production, using innovative nanotechnology that employed machine learning to optimise algal biomass production, a novel study that he presented at the South African Society for Microbiology conference.

With his master’s under his belt, and the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic that closed laboratories not preventing him from finishing on time, Mthembu does not intend to slow down.

‘I plan to continue doing what I love the most, being on this road of discovery where we put meaning to the unknown and use whatever we discover for the benefit of society,’ said Mthembu, regardless of whether this takes place in research or in industry.

‘Imfundo ayikhulelwa,’ said Mthembu of his continuing studies.

He is enrolled for a PhD in Biochemistry that will further develop a bi-functional drug-like compound capable of inducing protein degradation by hijacking the native degradation system of mycobacteria.

‘This novel work will showcase the idea of recruiting the native recycling system of the pathogen to target its essential proteins for antiproliferative effects, a first in the field,’ he said.

He credited his parents and grandmother for their support, and thanked Hewer and Delport for their invaluable guidance. He also acknowledged all his microbiology and biochemistry lecturers, and Pillay in genetics, for their positive influence on his development.

Words: Christine Cuenod

Photograph: Supplied