Ms Zakia Salod.

PhD Student’s Paper Published in Prestigious Journal

PhD candidate in Public Health Medicine at UKZN Ms Zakia Salod has published an article in a Q1 journal, Vaccines.

Her PhD research focuses on the intersection between reverse vaccinology and artificial intelligence.

Salod’s scoping review paper, titled Mapping Potential Vaccine Candidates Predicted by VaxiJen for Different Viral Pathogens between 2017-2021 – A Scoping Review provides an overview of studies published between 2017 and 2021 on potential vaccine candidates for various viruses predicted by VaxiJen, the most popular reverse vaccinology tool. The review included 275 papers that covered vaccine candidates for 64 viruses. Almost half the papers focused on the virus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). The findings are encouraging for the development of new vaccines.

Salod said it was a long road to publication. ‘I worked on the review paper for a couple of months, beginning around December 2021, when I conducted the article search across five online databases.

‘I worked every day, screening 1 033 papers and eventually including 275 articles, writing up the paper, revising it based on supervisor feedback, and going through rounds of extensive peer review feedback from the journal. During the latter part of 2021, I was awarded a scholarship to attend a 10-day African Advanced Vaccinology (Afro-ADVAC) course hosted by the African Leadership in Vaccinology Expertise (ALIVE) at the University of the Witwatersrand. The course taught me more about the field of vaccinology and gave me perspective while working on reverse vaccinology research.

‘Reverse vaccinology uses a computational approach to identify potential vaccine candidates to assist vaccine development,’ added Salod. ‘The predicted candidates could be protein sequence(s) or parts of protein sequence(s) of disease-causing organisms, such as viruses and bacteria.’

Salod was inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 to identify a computational method that would aid in vaccine development. She has since been self-studying reverse vaccinology. She hopes that her paper will be used as a guide by vaccinologists to perform experimental validation for the various viruses covered. She noted the need to prioritise SARS-CoV-2 because improved vaccines are required to keep up with the emergence of new variants. ‘Vaccinologists should also conduct experimental validation of the vaccine candidates predicted for the other viruses in this review. If these vaccines are successful, they may provide better protection than traditional vaccines.’

Salod expressed her gratitude to the Almighty, adding that, ‘I strongly believe that conducting medical research is my calling in life, which I am really passionate about.

‘Publication of my research brings me one step closer towards realising my dream of having my medical research shape policy, manifest in the real world, and save patients’ lives. I am also thankful to my PhD supervisor, Dr Ozayr Mahomed for his unwavering support, guidance, and encouragement.’ She also thanked the National Research Foundation (NRF) of South Africa and UKZN’s College of Health Sciences for funding her research.

Salod holds a Master’s in Medical Informatics, a BCom Honours degree in Information Systems and Technology, and a BSc Computer Science and Information Technology, all from UKZN.

Words: Nombuso Dlamini

Photograph: Supplied