MMV spoke to Dr Dina Coertzen, the 2022 recipient of MMV’s African Challenge Grant, about the work that MMV has supported and her experience as a fellow.
What is your academic and professional background?
I have a PhD from the University of Pretoria (UP) in biochemistry. Currently, I’m a Senior Fellow there working on a collaborative project between Professor Lyn-Marie Birkholtz (UP) and Professor Kelly Chibale from the University of Cape Town (UCT).
While working in this position, I was appointed as the research and project manager of the project focused on identifying the Plasmodium biological target of the compound AZD0156, for which I was awarded a grant by MMV.
What is the goal of your research conducted with the support of MMV’s African Challenges grant?
The project aims to identify novel, drug-like molecules active against the transmissible stages of the P. falciparum malaria parasite and investigate their mechanism of action against these parasites.
The compound we are investigating in this project, AZD0156, was identified as part of the long-term collaboration between Prof Birkholtz and Prof Chibale which has been running for more than 5 years. However, this MMV African Challenges grant has enabled us to initiate, to our knowledge, the first-ever investigation into biological target identification against the transmissible form of the parasite. We have also used this project to build a state-of-the-art assay platform to evaluate other compounds that work against these parasite stages.
What are the expected outcomes of this project?
Through the work achieved in this project, we hope to identify the target of the compound of interest in this study. This will not only give us insight into the mechanism of action of this compound but also will improve our understanding of the biology of these parasite stages and their relevance in future drug development.
Upon finalization of the project this year, we will publish our results disseminating the biological activity of this compound, its likely protein target and the validation of a platform for identifying unknown targets of novel chemical matter with potential transmission-blocking activities.
As a result of this seed grant, we are confident in saying that we can now perform these kinds of mechanistic investigations on a reproducible platform for other compounds of interest.
What has your experience working with MMV been like?
This is my first award as an early career academic. I’m extremely fortunate to have received this grant not only because of MMV’s international standing and the significant competition but also due to the research and administrative support MMV provided as part of this award.
Dr James Duffy [Senior Director, Drug Discovery] and Elodie Chenu [Project Coordinator, Drug Discovery] provided significant scientific guidance in helping evolve the project’s original objectives to develop a more robust experimental setup. This enabled us to ensure that all our checks and balances are correctly performed so that we can say we are confident in our results.
They’re also understanding of the challenges in doing research, particularly in South Africa, and flexible in the projected outcomes. MMV also created a lot of opportunities, including always envisioning the future direction and long-term impact of the project.
What challenges have you faced over the course of your research?
Science is not always straightforward. One of the challenges we had was the optimization of suitable conditions for the compound and protein target interactions because we were establishing new, reproducible protocols for investigating biology in the transmissible stage.
We also say that in Africa, we are geographically disadvantaged for many aspects of scientific research that are taken for granted elsewhere. For example, shipping equipment always takes longer than it does in the Global North and when equipment breaks down it can take months rather than weeks to receive spare parts.
What are your plans after your grant with MMV concludes? How does your current research prepare you for that?
I’ve received an exciting opportunity for a new lectureship position at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. I will conclude the project’s research component at UP before moving to this new role. However, the platform and protocols will continue under Professor Birkholtz at the University of Pretoria as part of the Grand Challenges, and I will continue to be a collaborating partner. I am happy to be part of the wider MMV network of researchers and know that this will be a great help to me as I develop as a researcher and continue to be part of the fight against malaria.
 AZD0156 is an AstraZeneca Candidate drug published as an inhibitor of Ataxia-telangiectasia mutated (ATM) kinase, an enzyme that belongs to a family of serine/threonine phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase-like-protein-kinases. The compound is contained within MMV’s Open Access Pandemic Response Box and was identified to impact parasite life-cycle stages by Prof Lyn-Marie Birtkholtz at the University of Pretoria and a wider team. This challenge grant focuses on identifying the biological target through which AZD0156 affects parasite transmission.