2017 Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Awards – Professor Mark Solms

The Trustees of the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust are pleased to announce the recipient of the prestigious Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award for 2017: Professor Mark Solms of the University of Cape Town. Solms becomes the twentieth recipient of the Award since its inception and the eighth from UCT.

Professor Solms is the Director of Neuropsychology in the Neurosciences Institute at the University of Cape Town, is internationally recognised for his work in the fields of psychoanalysis and neuropsychoanalysis and is a pioneer in these fields. He currently serves on an array of international and local bodies including the International Psychoanalytical Association, the American Psychoanalytic Association, the International Neuropsychoanalysis Centre, London, the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, the South African Psychoanalytical Association and the Health Foundation of the Western Cape.

Prof Lynn Morris is the Head of HIV Virology within the Centre for HIV & STIs based at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), National Health Laboratory Services (NHLS). She holds a joint appointment as a Research Professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand and is a Research Associate at CAPRISA.

Solms completed his PhD in Neuropsychology at the University of the Witwatersrand and pursued his early research interests and specialist training in London in the 1980s and 90s. After returning to South Africa, he received an A-rating from the NRF in 2009, the first Psychologist to receive this honour. He is a member of the Academy of Science of South Africa, an Honorary Fellow of the American College of Psychiatrists and winner of numerous awards and prizes – the George Sarton Medal, Sigourney Prize and Haskell Norman Prize amongst others. Mark publishes at a prolific rate (over 350 scientific articles to date). Selected publications include The Brain and the Inner World (2001), which was translated into twelve languages, and The Feeling Brain (2015) and he has succeeded to a large extent in linking the purely psychodynamic field of Freudian psychoanalysis (on which he is a leading authority) to modern knowledge of integrated neuroscience.

She plans to use the Oppenheimer Fellowship to develop a novel antibody-based approach for the prevention of HIV infection in women. This project will make use of an antibody which shows exceptional antiviral activity against HIV that she and her team, together with collaborators in the USA, isolated from an HIV-infected woman living in KwaZulu-Natal. The antibody will be genetically engineered into bacteria that naturally colonise the female genital tract, in order to provide an effective, direct and local defence against invading HIV particles. By doing so, Lynn and her team hope to develop a safe, non-invasive and durable method of delivering strongly inhibitory molecules to the anatomical site where HIV transmission usually occurs, as a female-focused and generally applicable prevention application against HIV infection.

Professor Solms plans to use the Oppenheimer Fellowship to complete the third and final phase of a large study under the auspices of UCT’s new Neurosciences Institute which is destined to become a major capacity builder in the country, developing new technical skills and knowledge. The study ‘Separation trauma and the epigenetics of depression’ tests the hypothesis that a specific environmental factor plays a causal role in depression, namely childhood separation trauma, and measures interactions between this factor and mutated genes present in most populations that have been provisionally associated with vulnerability and resilience in relation to depression. The first two phases of the study have yielded very promising results. Once completed, this research may provide the basis for a new understanding of the aetiological mechanisms of depression and the extent that these mechanisms implicate epigenetic factors which predict depression. This has direct implications for treatment and prevention, both psychological and psychopharmacological, and will lay the groundwork for the development of evidence-based preventative public health guidelines. Depression is a major and increasing public health burden in South Africa and internationally with more than 300 million people affected worldwide. At its worst, depression can lead to suicide (the second leading cause of death in 15-29-year-olds); even more significant is the immense curtailment of enjoyment of life and the blight it casts on the lives of sufferers and their families and friends. No coherent approach has been developed for this crippling disorder, even though a number of drug therapies have been moderately successful – the failure is due primarily to a lack of understanding of the causative mechanism or mechanisms

Concluding the Award presentation, Mr Nicky Oppenheimer, the Chair of the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust, said “We are delighted to confer this honour on Professor Solms and offer him the opportunity to advance this important work. This is an innovative project that seeks directly to address one of the biggest health challenges of our country and our times. We wish Mark and his colleagues every success.”