2016 Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Awards – Professor Lynn Morris and Professor Robert Millar

The Trustees of the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust are pleased to announce the recipients of the prestigious Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Awards for 2016: Professor Lynn Morris of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases & the University of the Witwatersrand and Professor Robert Millar of the University of Pretoria.

The Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Awards were initiated in 2001 to commemorate the Trust’s founder and all he stood for, especially his efforts to support human and intellectual development, advance scholarship and encourage innovative ideas. The Trust has a long tradition of investing in education and many beneficiaries have gone on to make important contributions to South African public life. The Fellowships build on this tradition and, with a monetary value of R1,5 million, rank as the Trust’s premier annual awards. These are special investments to encourage excellence in scholarship in all disciplines and in all its forms and serve to acknowledge cutting-edge, internationally significant work that has particular application to the advancement of knowledge, teaching, research and development in South Africa.

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.

Lynn completed her Bachelors of Science and Honours degrees at the University of the Witwatersrand and her DPhil at the University of Oxford after which she was awarded a Royal Society Florey Fellowship to undertake postdoctoral study in Australia. On her return to South Africa, she joined the NICD and has devoted the best part of the last twenty years to the search for an HIV vaccine. Morris is internationally recognised for her work in understanding how the antibody response to HIV develops. The rapid mutability of the virus means that the ‘standard’ antibody response is quickly obsolete in an infected individual. Morris has been prominent in studying the rare appearance in some patients of so-called broadly neutralising antibodies which can attack a broad range of mutated viruses. This work is currently one of the most promising leads towards the production of an effective anti-HIV vaccine. She received an A-rating from the NRF in 2015 and was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa that year and currently serves in leadership roles on various national and international bodies including the International Scientific Advisory Committee of the Institute of Infectious Disease & Molecular Medicine at UCT, the Poliomyelitis Research Foundation and the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise based in New York. She has received a number of awards including the Department of Science & Technology ‘Distinguished Women in Science Award’ (2013), the Wits University ‘Vice- Chancellor’s Research Award’ (2014) and the South African Medical Research Council ‘Gold Merit Award’ (2015). Lynn has a special article devoted to her work and career in the prestigious international journal, Lancet.

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 Robert (Bob) Millar is the Director of the Centre for Endocrinology at the University of Pretoria. He is also a Research Fellow at the Universities of Cape Town and Edinburgh and Professor Emeritus at the University of St Andrews.

Bob was born in South Africa and grew up in Zimbabwe. He completed a Bachelor of Science Honours degree and an MSc (University of London) and a PhD at the University of Liverpool. He joined the University of Cape Town in the mid-1970s, securing appointments as Director of the Endocrine Laboratory in the Department of Medicine at UCT in 1984 and as Assistant Dean for Research in the Faculty of Medicine from 1993 to 1998. In 1998 Millar was recruited by the University of Edinburgh to direct the UK Medical Research Council’s Human Reproductive Sciences Unit focusing on female and male reproductive pathologies, infertility, contraception and hormone replacement therapy, and he held this post until 2011. He also founded the reproductive health company, Ardana Biosciences, which raised £73 million, listed on the LSE, took three drugs into the market and three others to phase 2. After completing two terms at Edinburgh, Professor Millar returned to South Africa as Director of the Mammal Research Institute at the University of Pretoria, with a secondary position of Director of the UCT/MRC Receptor Biology Group. In 2016 he established a Centre for Neuroendocrinology in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Pretoria.

Millar received an A-rating from the NRF in 1990 and re-ratings at this level in subsequent years and his contributions to science have been widely recognised. Amongst other awards, he has received the Wellcome gold medal (1989), Bargmann-Scharrer laureate (1997), Geoffrey Harris laureate (2006), John F Herschel gold medal (2016, the highest award of the Royal Society of South Africa), the South African Medical Research Council’s platinum medal (2016), the NSTF/Billiton lifetime achievement award as well as awards for life time contributions to the Society for Endocrinology and Diabetes of Southern Africa. He is a Fellow of the Royal Societies of Edinburgh and South Africa and a member of the Academy of Science of South Africa, and is currently President of the International Neuroendocrine Federation. Professor Millar, who is broadly qualified and technically well-equipped in a number of fields, has had a particular fascination with endocrine biomedical research for many years and he identified the chemical structure of the fourth hypothalamic hormone to be discovered (the first three being isolated by Guillemin and Schally who received the Nobel Prize for the achievement). With his team, he has been involved in the break-through discovery that function can be restored to inactivating mutations in human G-protein- coupled receptors (GPCRs) using small molecules now called pharmacochaperones. GPCRs are a large family of seven transmembrane domain cell surface receptors that are activated by diverse ligands and are responsible for up to 80% of cell communication. As a result, GPCR signalling regulates most biological processes in humans and GPCRs present very effective drug targets. Currently 30-45% of all marketed therapeutics target GPCR signalling pathways and despite this, most GPCRs have yet to be targeted for therapeutic intervention.

Millar’s research project is directed at a class of cell receptor proteins that can mis-fold during their formation in the producing cells, resulting in many and diverse diseases. He uses pharmacological techniques to rescue those molecules from the mis-fold, focusing on the luteinising hormone receptor (LHR), one of the keystone reproductive hormones. Safety has been established – Millar and his co-investigators are in the fortunate position that the pharmacokinetics, tolerability and safety of the cell-permeant molecule (LHR-Chap), an allosteric agonist of the LHR, have already been investigated and reported in detail – and they are ready to fast-track unique clinical studies which, if successful, will have important implications for precision and personalised treatment of mutations of GPCRs causing conditions such as blindness, diabetes insipidus, diabetes mellitus, obesity, reproductive failure, hot flushes, polycystic ovarian syndrome, adrenal failure and a plethora of other conditions. This provides an unprecedented opportunity for drug development and amelioration of human health. The Oppenheimer Fellowship will greatly facilitate the advance of this focus of Millar’s research.