Tuberculosis (TB) infection remains a huge global health issue, killing 1.5million people every year. It primarily affects the lungs, causing acute and life-threatening disease, and for around 1 in 100 infected people, the infection can spread to their brain, causing permanent damage.
Ursula and the Paediatric Neurosurgery team in Cape Town are taking a unique approach to studying this rare type of TB infection.
“Treatment for TB meningitis is the same as treatment for the lung infection, but the brain is a unique and highly vulnerable organ, especially the developing brain in children,” says Ursula. “We’re tackling the issue from a neuroscience perspective - what are the mechanisms driving injury to the brain and how can we detect these early enough to intervene.”
“We know that TB meningitis causes brain infarcts in more than 60% of patients, due to restricted blood supply, and neurocognitive deficits in 100% of our patients.”
Ursula hopes to identify a biomarker for TB in the brain which would enable treatment to start much earlier, avoiding long term and irreversible brain damage.
Her new Wellcome Trust International Intermediate Fellowship will support this research for the next five years and help Ursula develop her career in neuroscience. As well as looking for biomarkers of disease in the blood, her team will be examining disease processes that cause brain injury, and examining their impact on cortical connectivity and function using advanced imaging techniques.
“My CAN fellowship has been invaluable in helping me reach this point,” adds Ursula. “The pandemic has been really hard on researchers, but teams at the Crick have gone above and beyond to help me access training and resources from South Africa when I couldn’t travel.
“I’m excited to now be able to visit the Crick in person and work with the STP teams. I’ve been working with the Metabolomics STP to understand the metabolic pathways that may be involved in brain injury from TB meningitis, and the Crick’s flow cytometry team have helped me develop a technique for freezing cerebrospinal fluid so it can be stored for future analysis.”
Jean Langhorne, who leads the Crick African Network, said: “We’re delighted to see Ursula secure such a prestigious fellowship and continue to build her career as a science leader in Africa.
“She has championed a multidisciplinary approach to infectious disease and neuroscience research in Cape Town, a goal we were only too happy to support through the Crick African Network. We hope to grow our activity in Africa, building on this successful programme and supporting more future science leaders.”
Support from the Crick has also enabled Ursula to engage local school children with neuroscience and medical research, encouraging them to consider further education and a career in science one day.
“The aim is definitely to inspire the next generation of neuroscientists, but more broadly we hope to expose these children with limited opportunities to the wonders of the brain, to provide them with knowledge on how to protect and maintain the health of their developing brains, and to show them the exciting world of science and research, “says Ursula.
“The CAN programme supports people, not just individual projects. The team at the Crick have been really supportive and flexible, enabling me to tackle different research questions and also build upon areas of my career that are really important to me, like education and teaching.”