KZN researcher awarded rare international honour

2013-10-08 00:00

EMERITUS Professor Clive Dennison — alumnus and former professor of biochemistry at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg campus — is set to make history by becoming the first South African to be awarded lifetime membership of the International Proteolysis Society.

Dennison will be officially honoured later this month for his extensive contribution to the study of cysteine proteases, enzymes that break down proteins (especially in fruits like pineapple, papaya, kiwifruit and figs), at the eighth International Proteolysis Society conference in Cape Town.

“I am totally flabbergasted by such recognition. It came as a complete surprise, yet it also feels great to get such recognition from peers, knowing very well that I am a retired professor,” Dennison said.

Born in 1944 in Isipingo, and later moving to Manderston, Dennison was always fascinated by birds and horses. From this fascination with life grew the curiosity that led him to study biochemistry at the then University of Natal.

At the time when Dennison embarked upon an independent research career, the mechanisms of protein synthesis had just been worked out, but little was known about the other half of the cycle — that is, how proteins are broken down to maintain equilibrium. It was known that proteins are broken down by a group of proteolytic enzymes, known as proteases. But not all of these had been identified and which ones were involved in which aspects of proteolysis (protein breakdown) were not known.

“It might be too early to predict all the benefits of such research, since knowledge precedes application, but the isolation of protein from pineapples could help in HIV/Aids vaccines, and treatment of allergies like hay fever and intestinal worms”, he said.

Speaking about the quality of research at his former university, Dennison bemoaned what he called a lack of innovation due to the overburdening of researchers with administrative work.

“It really breaks my heart that most researchers have loads of administrative tasks to deal with instead of research. This, coupled by a lack of sufficient funds, does not allow the freedom to pursue ideas and do ground-breaking research”, Dennison said.

When he is not working on his scientific research, Dennison and his wife, Edith, enjoy flying in their microlight two-seat, fixed-wing aircraft. “Flying has always been a passion and, as a scientist, it nourishes and stimulates my curiosity and wonder at nature,” Dennison said.

By being elected as a life time member of the International Proteolysis Society, Dennison will be exempted from paying annual fees and get great discounts on conference fees. This will allow him to research more and showcase his findings to the scientific community, and put South Africa among the leading proteolysis researchers.

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