NSTF-BHP Billiton Awards 2013/14

From Asthma to Aeronautics:

the 2013/14 NSTF-BHP Billiton Awards.

Three academics from the University of Cape Town were honoured at the 16th Annual National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)-BHP Billiton Awards for their contributions to the fields of science, engineering, technology and innovation in South Africa. Eight other UCT academics were among the 56 finalists for the prestigious awards.

Emeritus Professor Eric Bateman, director and founder of the UCT Lung Institute, Department of Medicine, received the accolade for an individual who has made an excellent contribution to science, engineering and technology over a lifetime. Professor Keertan Dheda, Head of the Division of Pulmonology, Department of Medicine, was recognised for his exceptional contribution to the fields of science, engineering and technology through research and its outputs over the last five to 10 years. The third award went to Professor Arnaud Malan at the Department of Mechanical Engineering for his outstanding contribution to science, engineering and technology through research leading to innovation in a corporate organisation or institution.

Professor Danie Visser, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research, says these awards demonstrate that UCT’s research is in good shape. “On the one hand, Professor Bateman’s award celebrates a scientist who has spent a lifetime promoting lung health and who is still at it at 66 as an A-rated scientist and director of the UCT Lung Institute. On the other hand, Professor Dheda’s award recognises the vanguard of the next generation, by acknowledging his influential work in understanding the transmission and control of TB. The award to Professor Malan, as leader of the team that developed the Elemental software, also celebrates a brilliant young researcher and underlines the importance of innovation.”

Elemental plane wing simulation.

Elemental plane wing simulation.

The NSTF-BHP Billiton Awards are a flagship project of the NSTF, which is the largest and most prominent multi-stakeholder non-profit forum for science, engineering and technology in South Africa. The awards are endorsed by the Department of Science and Technology and recognise both pure and applied research, as well as research development that leads to product and process innovation.

A lifelong commitment to tackling lung disease

Emeritus Professor Bateman is still spoken about as “the man who changed the way we treat asthma” after leading one of the biggest studies into asthma treatment of its time, and publishing a paper that changed international guidelines and goals around treatment. As chair of the Science Committee of the Global Initiative for Asthma (GINA), he was convener and lead author of a major revision of the GINA asthma report in 2006 and has been instrumental in establishing asthma as a global health priority. He established the UCT Lung Institute in 2000 and was a founding executive member of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Global Alliance against Chronic Respiratory Diseases.

At the same time, he has worked on improving methods of delivering primary care in low- and middle-income countries where asthma, as the most common chronic disease in children, places a huge burden on the poor. He has also played a significant role in developing methods for helping health workers in primary care facilities to deliver quality care for common chronic and infectious diseases. “The public health clinician is more than just a good doctor,” says Professor Bateman. “He or she is someone who accepts the responsibility for taking their skills into the community.”

Targeting drug-resistant TB

Professor Dheda is known for his seminal contributions to understanding the pathogenesis, diagnosis, management and control of drug-resistant TB in South Africa and is a recipient of a plethora of awards, including the South African Medical Research Council Gold Award in 2013 and the prestigious Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award in 2014.

His innovation is evident in much of his work: he recently led a team that published their findings in The Lancet, showing that placing new rapid TB diagnostic technology (Gene Xpert) in a clinic was feasible when testing is performed by a nurse. This approach has led to rapid diagnosis of drug-resistant TB, with more patients being placed on treatment.

It is in tackling these untreatable strains of drug-resistant TB (DR-TB) that Professor Dheda’s persistence is most needed. Where previously DR-TB developed mainly in patients who had failed to complete their antibiotic treatment, 80% of it is now spread directly from person to person. In South Africa, patients with DR-TB have poor outcomes in 50 to 75% of cases, and despite comprising less than 3% of the total TB burden, consume almost half of the annual total TB management budget. Identifying the patients most likely to spread DR-TB means that infection control could be targeted more effectively. “Only 10 to 20% of patients with DR-TB are responsible for the majority of transmission,” says Dheda. “These individuals are ideal candidates for targeted infection control interventions to render them rapidly non-infectious.”

Reaching new heights

Professor Arnaud Malan in the Department of Mechanical Engineering first conceived the idea behind Elemental, a next-generation computational fluid dynamics (CFD) software tool, 15 years ago when he was still a wet-behind-the-ears engineering student. Today, this innovative and sophisticated analysis technique that uses mathematical models and equations, enabling scientists to study the dynamics of fluid flow through a 3D computer model, is generating significant income from annual licensing fees, and has already resulted in a successful UCT spin-out company: Elemental Numerics (Pty) Ltd.

The software has diverse applications, from aircraft design to heart valves and industrial fans, and has attracted research contracts worth over R8 million from Europe. This includes a R2.5-million agreement between the Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment and top European space technology company, Airbus Defence and Space, for groundbreaking use in the modelling and design of space applications such as rockets and satellites. It is set to propel South Africa into the high-tech world of international space technology and has profound implications for the country’s economy, business and science.

The global commercial CFD software market, currently generating more than R5.6 billion annually, is one of the fastest-growing fields in engineering today and Elemental has allowed South Africa to play in this league. According to Professor Malan: “The best commercial software in the world has been found to be limited. That is why they’re looking to us.”

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