Stellenbosch University researcher wins prestigious UK scientific award

University of Stellenbosch Biomedical Sciences Department Professor Novel Chegou has been awarded the Royal Society’s Africa Prize for 2022, the university announced on Wednesday. The Royal Society is the UK’s scientific academy, although with many leading international members, and is the oldest such body in the world, having been founded in 1660.

Prof Chegou, who hails from Cameroon, was awarded the prize for his work in the areas of pulmonary and extrapulmonary tuberculosis (TB). The prize takes the form of a bronze medal and a cash gift of £2 000 (at current exchanges rates, about R40 000).

“It is a huge honour,” he said. “We are passionate about the kind of research we are doing. All we want to do is contribute to developing tools for the control of TB, if we can, and also to train students and publish data.”

Chegou heads one of the five separate research laboratories of the Stellenbosch University Immunology Research Group. He did his initial medical scientific training at Cameroon’s English-language University of Buea, and subsequently did his Honours degree at Stellenbosch, followed by an MSc degree, also at Stellenbosch, which was upgraded into a PhD.

The Royal Society’s award is not the first prize he has won during his career. In 2005 he won the South African Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology award for the best Honours student in South Africa. In 2015 he received both the Stellenbosch University Rector’s Award for General Performance and the UNESCO-Merck Africa Research Summit Young Researcher Award. And in 2019 he received the South African Medical Research Council’s Silver Scientific Achievement Award.

In his work, Chegou has been largely focused on discovering biomarkers for TB that could be used to develop tests that would allow the early diagnosis of the disease. He now intends to focus on biomarkers that could be used to diagnose TB meningitis in children. Currently, this is difficult to diagnose, but delayed diagnoses results in the infected children developing neurological problems.

“To diagnose it, you really need advanced tools and expensive equipment, which is why children are mostly referred to a tertiary hospital,” he explains. “But, most of the time, they will never be normal again by the time the disease is diagnosed. The question is: can we diagnose TB meningitis easier, using the biomarkers that we have been working with? What we want to do with the award is to continue improving on the tests that we are trying to develop for earlier diagnosis of that disease in children.”

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