School of Life Sciences

Dr Alexandre Delport.

Biochemistry Researcher Germany-Bound for Nobel Laureate Meeting

Postdoctoral researcher in biochemistry at UKZN Dr Alexandre Delport is one of only 11 South African scientists selected to travel to Germany for the annual Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting at the end of this month.

Dedicated to the field of chemistry, the meeting provides a platform for about 35 Nobel Laureates to present their research, reflect on their careers and engage with 600 young scientists selected to attend from all over the world. Participants include undergraduates, PhD candidates and post-doctoral researchers representing diverse nationalities, generations, cultures and disciplines.

More than 200 leading science and research institutions worldwide that are official academic partners of the Lindau meetings identify the participants from their countries. Delport was selected by the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) for the opportunity to benefit from in-depth exchanges with Nobel Laureates during the six-day programme and is the only UKZN representative.

Delport is pursuing her postdoctoral research under the supervision of Professor Raymond Hewer in the School of Life Sciences (SLS) and is investigating the amyloid precursor protein (APP), particularly the hindrance of amyloid beta (Aß) derived from APP that forms the bulk of the amyloid plaques found in the brains of people suffering from diseases including Alzheimer’s. Delport is focusing on protein degradation, using natural pathways to target and remove APP.

This work builds on the research Delport undertook for her PhD, also under the supervision of Hewer, an alumnus of the Lindau programme who encouraged Delport to apply.

Her PhD research, which won her the 2020 Research Excellence Award for Next Generation Researchers from the National Research Foundation (NRF), involved identifying ligands that can bind the APP and which could be used to formulate degraders for the protein. During her PhD studies, Delport visited the Technical University of Kaiserslautern, funded by the NRF-German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) In-Country Scholarship, and spent time in the laboratory of Professor Stefan Kins, a renowned expert in neurodegenerative disease and biochemistry.

With a patent pending, provisional seed funding from the Technology Innovation Agency and interest from local pharmaceutical companies in the results of her research, Delport is taking this research to pre-clinical stage to develop potential treatments for APP-related disease. She has published five papers from her PhD research and two from her postdoctoral work.

Having pursued all of her studies at UKZN in Pietermaritzburg, Delport is drawn to an academic career and particularly enjoys the laboratory work that her vocation involves. Choosing to study biological sciences at UKZN because of the University’s proximity to her family, the popular Introductory Biochemistry and Microbiology (BIMI) module drew her into biochemistry and she went on to pursue her master’s degree on African trypanosomiasis under the supervision of Professor Theresa Coetzer.

An internship with Hewer in the area of drug discovery ignited her passion for the field and Delport found she flourished in the small, stimulating environment of his laboratory.

Looking ahead to Lindau, Delport is most excited about attending a lecture by Nobel Laureate Professor Aaron Ciechanover, who characterised the method used by cells to degrade and recycle proteins using the ubiquitin regulatory protein. She is also looking forward to the science walk, the Laureate lunch, the boat ride on the final day, as well as post-event opportunities.

Delport thanked Hewer, Professor Carola Niesler and Professor Ademola Olaniran for creating an environment conducive to success in the SLS and for their support. She also acknowledged ASSAf in partnership with the Department of Science and Innovation and the Lindau Nobel Laureate Committee for, respectively, nominating her and funding the trip.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied