National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)

Dr Wynand Goosen

Dr Wynand Goosen

Keeping tabs on TB – and stopping interspecies transmission

Diseases moving from animals to humans are more than fodder for thriller-movie plots – it’s a reality that Dr Wynand Goosen of Stellenbosch University continues to research. Known as zoonotic pathogens, these simple organisms are the subject of his future goal: to establish a TB One Health intradisciplinary South African research  group that will seek to better understand, detect and describe how they are able to transmit between the environment, humans, livestock and wildlife. 

As Wellcome Trust Lecturer at the DSI/NRF Centre of Excellence for Biomedical TB Research’s Animal Tuberculosis Group, in the Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics at the university’s Department of Biomedical Sciences, Dr Goosen leads numerous projects to development: tests able to measure unique blood immunological markers, detect the presence of TB DNA in dirty respiratory samples and improve TB sequencing directly from such samples. 

Having started his research career as the Animal Tuberculosis Group’s first Honours student in 2012, he now leads South African research on the surveillance of zoonotic tuberculosis (TB) in domestic- and wild animals as potential sources of spillover infections in susceptible people in rural areas. He identified a novel blood marker associated with early TB infection, detected TB DNA in respiratory samples with high sensitivity, and successfully sequenced TB amidst various inhibitors. 

“South Africa is highly prevalent for M. tuberculosis (known generally as TB), HIV, diabetes, and more recently, lung disease caused by SARS-CoV2,” Goosen explains. “This makes the human population more susceptible to infection by spillover of zoonotic animal (livestock and wildlife) adapted- and environmental Mycobacteria spp. 

“Existing diagnostic tools cannot distinguish between these different infections. This is concerning since many of the animal and environmental strains are naturally resistant to numerous widely used antibiotics for treatment of tuberculosis. The tools I have designed enable society to identify, distinguish and understand these infections better in their preferred and opportunistic hosts, leading to improved public health.” 

Goosen adds that some of the standout moments in his work have been how researchers, veterinarians, medical doctors, policy makers, wildlife managers and animal owners have worked together to address the devastating impact of tuberculosis in all potential hosts by improving research methods, collaborating on surveillance, and sharing expertise.

“Funding for our TB One Health project remains a challenge, as does government red tape, wildlife species-specific laboratory reagents, and support for students from government,” he says. “However, we have received generous funding from interested parties like the South African Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Foundation, who understand the importance of this research for animals and humans.” — Kerry Haggard

Read the special Mail & Guardian supplement about all the NSTF-South32 Award winners.

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