Research Units/Centres

Research Units in the School

The following research units/groups/centres function in the School:


Antimicrobial Resistance

The Antimicrobial Resistance Research Proto-Unit was established in Pharmaceutical Sciences by Professor Sabiha Essack, who is Chapter Leader for the South African Chapter of Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics (an international NGO). The Unit has as its overarching objective the optimisation of antimicrobial therapy in the face of escalating resistance within a public health system facing an ever-increasing incidence of infections and infectious diseases corresponding with the HIV/AIDS prevalence in the country. The research conducted takes a pharmacovigilance perspective and impacts on the National Health Policy in terms of amendments to standard treatment guidelines (STGs) and the essential drugs list (EDL).


The research encompasses surveillance within state hospitals in KwaZulu-Natal, the molecular epidemiology of antimicrobial resistance and the delineation of resistance phenotypes and genotypes ranging from sensitivity testing to DNA sequencing of resistant genes and the genetic determinants of resistance. Resistance to beta-lactam antibiotics, amino glycosides, fluoroquinolones and macrolides is prioritized, as is resistance in Acinetobacter spp., Citrobacter spp., Enterobacter spp., Escherichia coli, Klebsiella spp., Proteus spp., Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Staphylococcus aureus.


Resistance as a consequence of qualitative and quantitative antibiotic use is also investigated as are related aspects such as risk factors, clinical significance, infection control, pharmaco-economics and dose optimization in the context of population-specific drug pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics.


Oculocutaneous Albinism

Eye movements are affected by various eye and systemic disorders. The Discipline of Optometry recently purchased a Chronos eye tracker which facilitates measurement of three dimensional eye movements. It is to be used in studying eye movements in various eye diseases and anomalies. One of the projects that are in preparation is the study of eye movements in albinism. Albinism is a group of inherited disorders of melanin, characterized by generalized reduction in pigment of hair, skin and eyes and is one of the most common inherited disorders in Africa. The deficiency in melanin has underlying associated neurological problems such as misrouting of the retino-cortical nerve fibres at the optic chiasma, which might cause reduced stereoscopic vision. Albinism is associated with several eye and visual anomalies which include foveal hypoplasia, refractive errors, poor visual acuity, poor contrast sensitivity, nystagmus and photophobia; all of which can degrade eye movements.


Effective coordination of the vertical and horizontal saccadic eye movements ensure the location of object of regard on the fovea, which facilitates single binocular vision. Abnormal routing of the retino-cortical fibres and visual impairments such poor visual acuity, poor contrast sensitivity, which are associated with albinism can influence binocular saccades and binocular coordination. Saccadic eye movement in individuals with albinism has not been studied. The quality of binocular saccadic eye movements in individuals with albinism is to be studied in this project. Movements such as the vertical and horizontal saccades (right and left eyes) will be studied at various distances and eccentricities with the video oculography (chronos). This study has implications for functional eye movements in persons with albinism. The research group is headed by Professor Olalekan Oduntan


Human Performance Laboratory

The Human Performance Laboratory (HPL) was established in 2009 and is a cutting-edge and vibrant home of research activity within the Department of Biokinetics, Exercise and Leisure Studies as well as the School of Health Sciences. The HPL provides a research training environment with multiple opportunities for postgraduate research students and staff to develop their contextual academic, theoretical, technical and research methods skills. 


The aim of the Human Performance Laboratory (HPL) is to provide Research Training and Research Outputs of an international standard. Postgraduate students have access to state of the art research equipment. The HPL provides a focus for research activities ranging from studies at cellular level to whole-body responses to exercise and from elite athletes to novices at physical activity.  Current research groups include Cardiovascular Science, Muscle Physiology and Metabolism, Physical Activity, Recreation, Leisure, Exercise and Health, Sports Injury Prevention and Epidemiology, and Exercise Immunology.


The Discipline of Biokinetics, Exercise and Leisure Sciences has established numerous research collaborative agreements with National and International Institutions as well as other Departments within the University of KwaZulu-Natal. 


A few of the major research projects currently being conducted in the Discipline and the HPL include:


1) The examination of the impact of high intensity interval training on lipolysis and cardiovascular risk factors in obese individuals. This project is a collaboration between East Carolina University (Department of Kinesiology), the University of Zululand (Department of Biokinetics and Sport Science) and the UKZN Department of Anaesthetics. The project is funded by the South African National Research Foundation until 2014. Using a technique called microdialysis, numerous immune, inflammatory and cardiovascular risk biomarkers are being sampled from the interstitial fluid of subjects before and after participating in a 12 week high-intensity training programme. This project has important implications for understanding the mechanisms that can explain how exercise improves the health of obese individuals.


2) Immune, hormonal and fall risk responses to resistance training in the elderly. In collaboration with the Department of Geriatrics and the UKZN Research Office, this research project is examining whether a resistance training programme will have an impact on the immune system and anabolic hormone responses in the elderly as well as their fall risk. This project has implications relating to the benefits of strength training, specifically those individuals who are living in homes for the elderly.


3) Impact of nutritional interventions on recovery from exercise-induced skeletal muscle damage. In collaboration with Florida State University (Department of Nutrition, Food and Exercise Sciences), the project is examining whether nutritional interventions or supplementation prior to muscle damaging exercise will improve recovery time after the exercise. This project has important implications for strength and conditioning practices in athletes and sports people.


4) Relationship between physical activity and immune and inflammatory markers in pre-adolescent children. Research has shown that childhood obesity is a major public health problem. Obese children are developing type 2 diabetes as well as cardiovascular disease. These chronic diseases are associated with chronic low-grade inflammation. The project aims to identify whether non-invasive saliva samples are useful for identifying low-grade inflammation in obese children.


5) Protein supplementation and resistance exercise for treating the metabolic syndrome in HIV patients. In collaboration with Florida State University (Department of Nutrition, Food and Exercise Sciences) this project will examine whether daily protein supplementation combined with resistance exercise will play a role in reducing the markers of the metabolic syndrome in HIV infected patients. It has been demonstrated that these patients are living longer than in the past but are developing chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. The project has implications for promoting the use of protein supplements and/or resistance exercise in HIV patients.


6) Hydration status and thermoregulatory responses in multi-stage trail running. In collaboration with the UKZN, Department of Human Physiology, the project examined the core temperature, thermoregulatory and hydration responses over a three day trail run. Participants swallowed special “tablets” that contained a thermometer and heart rate telemetry device which provided important information relating to core temperature and heart rate responses of the trail-runners. The study has important implications for understanding how the body adapts to ultra-endurance exercise and the hydration practices that should be followed.


7) Relationship between health and recreational facility use and availability within KwaZulu-Natal. This project is important for understanding whether recreational facilities are having an impact on the health of individuals living within KwaZulu-Natal communities. This study has an implications for the design and development of recreational facilities in disadvantaged communities.


8) Two research projects are currently being performed in the area of musculo-skeletal epidemiology:


  1. a) Acute musculoskeletal stress and strain due to back pack loading in primary school children. This project examined the impact that back pack loading has on musculoskeletal stress, strain and pain in primary school children. This has implications for guidelines regarding the “safe” load that children should be carrying.


  1. b) Work-related musculoskeletal pain among general surgeons. Surgeons work for long hours under extremely stressful conditions. It is crucial that information is obtained regarding their working conditions and body positions that they have to maintain during surgery and whether this has an impact on musculoskeletal pain.




The Disciplines of Physiotherapy and Occupational Therapy have embarked on various research projects into the effects of HIV/AIDS treatments on physical and psychological rehabilitation. Studies have found that patients in hospitals in Durban on Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Treatment (HAART) tend to present new clinical manifestations. Due to the changing profile of these patients, physiotherapy and other modes of rehabilitation are often required. The discipline of occupational therapy has recently opened a Vocational Assessment Centre which will provide substantial opportunities for research in the field of occupational injuries.


Biomedical Resource Unit (BRU)

The BRU is one of the largest laboratory animal facilities in South Africa. Opened in 1988, the intention was to meet the scientific needs of teachers and researchers in the area of biomedical sciences. The Unit houses and breeds a variety of research animal modes under the highest ethical and international standards. Currently the Unit breeds minimal diseased animals.


A unique feature of the Unit is a barrier system to ensure the disease-free status of the animals by means of a computer controlled access system. The Unit assists in the sterilization programme of feral cats on the Westville campus and provides veterinary expertise to the Mitchell Park Zoo and the Natal Sharks Board. It also assists fellow institutions such as the Durban Institute of Technology, the University of Western Cape, the University of the Free State and the University of Zululand.



Health Outcomes Research Unit

The Health Outcomes Research Unit (HORU) was established to carry out outcomes research for all sectors of the healthcare industry and to strengthen capacity within the fields of health outcomes and in particular health- and pharmaco-economics.

The Unit has a large research portfolio and since its inception has been associated with a series of projects and research applications which have been submitted to a wide range of funding bodies including the Medical Research Council (MRC), the Provincial and National Departments of Health, PEPFAR and the European Union.




Drug Delivery Systems and Nanotechnology

Headed by Professor Thirumala Govender of the School of Pharmaceutical Sciences, this research group has been recognised both nationally and internationally for their work in the development of novel drug delivery systems for the buccal route. A recent study investigated the potential of the buccal route for the delivery of antiretroviral drugs to overcome their many side effects. The group also focuses on research into nanomedicine to prevent, diagnose, treat and monitor disease.



Molecular Pharmacology Research Unit

Situated in Pharmacology, the unit which was conceptualized in 2008, is headed by Dr Peter Owira. Currently the research thrust is focused on pharmacological profiling of the grapefruit in the management of Diabetes and Cardiovascular Diseases. The unit’s research thrust is on isolating and characterizing bioactive chemicals in the grapefruit juice that may be responsible for its apparent pharmacological actions, elucidating the molecular mechanisms involved and developing them into putative therapeutic agents.


Groundbreaking findings have been published in peer-reviewed, high impact factor international journals such as Cardiovascular Journal of Africa, Methods and Findings in Clinical and Experimental Pharmacology and the Journal of Cardiovascular Pharmacology.


The unit was recently awarded a Career Development Award of R1 million over the next four years by the Medical Research Council of South Africa (MRC).



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