UKZN’s Cancer and Infectious Diseases Epidemiology Research Unit (CIDERU) held a four-day Project Transition Retreat in the Drakensberg led by Professor Themba Ginindza.

The transition projection moves the Multinational Lung Cancer Control Programme (MLCCP) into CIDERU which, according to Ginindza, was created to unite expertsfrom diverse backgrounds to synergise and share their competencies toward the unique challenges of cancer and infectious agents in Africa.

In 2019, MLCCP received a R40m grant from the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation for Phase Two of its project aimed at finding a proof-of-concept incubation for the Cancer Centre of Excellence and Research by adding a clinical component to the foundation built in the MLCCP Phase One, which was concluded in September 2019.

It was a multinational project across six African countries – Kenya, Lesotho, Ethiopia, Eswatini, Tanzania and South Africa – aimed at improving access to early diagnostic services for lung cancer by addressing the barriers of cancer care. The team worked with communities and Ministries of Health in the six countries.

Phase Two includes the clinical component, building on the foundations laid by the first phase. In particular, it contains a clinical aspect that seeks to evaluate lung health, histological subtypes, genetics of lung cancer, clinical presentation, treatment outcomes and pulmonary rehabilitation.

The project is currently based at three sites – Addington Hospital in Durban, where an MLCCP diagnostic unit has been set up, Inkosi Albert Luthuli Central Hospital (IALCH) in Durban, and Greys Hospital in Pietermaritzburg, where other lung cancer patients are treated as referrals from peripheral base hospitals. Two more sites – Queen Nandi Hospital and Ngwelezane Hospital in Empangeni – are to be included.

Ginindza said CIDERU’s vision was to bolster excellence in health research, where outstanding scientists collaboratively generate transformative scientific advances that lead to the prevention, treatment, and cures of cancer and infectious diseases for the betterment of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, Africa and beyond.

He said his decision for the Unit was informed by a variety of factors including work experiences and losing loved ones to cancer. ‘Cancer and infectious diseases are responsible for many deaths in Africa.’

The Unit hopes to establish effective partnerships between researchers and decision makers so that the research findings can be transformed into programmatic actions by focusing on how to formulate these partnerships, how to forge common interests between researchers and the users of research results, how to make research understandable to those who will be affected by the results, and how to transform research results into actions aimed at improving policies, strategies and programmes.

Co-Principal Investigator Dr Khumbulani Hlongwana said: ‘The CIDERU concept supports and aligns with UKZN’s academic mission. It aims to produce more intellectual capital and research publications, drive revenue, and contribute to the University’s goals of social responsibility facilitated through continuous community engagement.’

He said it also aimed to build a research ethos, acknowledging the responsibility of academic staff to nurture postgraduate students.

‘The University will benefit from government subsidies for these degrees. We aim to be a pre-eminent producer of new knowledge that is both local and global in context. As CIDERU becomes prominent as a research hub, there will also be reputational benefit to UKZN, which will have a ripple effect attracting further funding.’

The Unit will sustain itself through grant writing and provision of commercial services championed by senior executives, securing research grants from South African and international research foundations and other funding agencies, and through seeking Government support.

The Project Transition Retreat focused on improving team effectiveness with UKZN’s Dr Michael Cloete and Ms Nonjabulo Zondi delivering a highly engaging workshop on enhancing work culture during which participants were treated to insightful team-building activities, enabling them to discover their true personality traits. The information gained made it possible for team members to capitalise on their strengths and weaknesses which will contribute to a better-equipped workforce in future.

Mr Nkosinathi Mncwabe, project officer for the venture and a PhD candidate who has been with the operation since its inception in 2018, said the MLCCP and CIDERU created a platform on which individuals could grow as professionals with the benefit of close mentorship, capacity building and exposure to professional experience. ‘I commend the project for the amazing work in delivering services to local communities, screening for lung cancer and risk reduction, and providing care and support to all affected by cancer, to name just a few of its highly noteworthy functions.’

Mncwabe, who was a participant at the Drakensberg retreat, said he was grateful to have taken part as it had helped him rediscover his strengths and weaknesses.

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Words: Nombuso Dlamini

Photograph: Siya Dlamini