Virology – Emerging Viruses


Research Interests

Host-pathogen interactions, oncogenic viruses, cancer biology

Description of Research

Our research primarily focuses on oncogenic viruses relevant in the Sub-Saharan African context, an area that is additionally burdened by an HIV/AIDS epidemic of massive proportions. We are particularly interested in host-pathogen interactions of Kaposi’s sarcoma herpesvirus (KSHV) and Human papillomavirus (HPV), both viruses being associated with AIDS-defining malignancies, with the long-term aim of developing novel preventative and diagnostic tools. Our research comprises both basic laboratory-based in vitro and in vivo studies as well as clinical studies involving national and international collaborations.

Supported by funding from various sources such as the EDCTP, the NRF, the MRC, CANSA and the PRF, we have discovered novel molecules modulating the early events during HPV infection, such as vimentin and surfactant protein A. Additionally, we have identified genetic variants of the KSHV entry receptor, EPHA2, in a South African HIV-infected patient cohort that were associated with susceptibility to KSHV infection and Kaposi’s sarcoma prevalence. Moreover, we recently found that elevated KSHV viral load in the blood was associated with mortality in critically ill HIV-infected patients with suspected but not microbiologically confirmed tuberculosis. These findings provide opportunities for a) targeting virus entry to prevent cancers with KSHV or HPV etiology; and b) for developing novel diagnostics/prognostics tools for virus-associated cancers relevant in high-burden HIV settings.

Based on our expertise in virology and in response to the recent Covid-19 outbreak, we have supported the Institute of Infectious Diseases and Molecular Medicine (IDM) at the University of Cape Town in setting up a diagnostic pipeline to ramp up national SARS-CoV2 testing capacities. Moreover, current research efforts focus on elucidating and targeting SARS-CoV2 entry mechanisms with the aim to develop cost-effective inhalant preventative means during seasonal coronavirus outbreaks.

Proposed genetic factors associated with KSHV infection and/or development of Kaposi’s Sarcoma (KS). KSHV infects endothelial cells and following lytic infection, establishes latency from which reactivation events can occur; KS develops from latently infected endothelial cells (grey box). Gene names in green text indicate an association with decreased risk; red text an association with increased risk.
*Various HLA haplotypes are either protective or increase risk of KS development as detailed in Blumenthal et al., 2020 (Reviews in Medical Virology). Figure created with

Recent Publications

Sinead, C., Bergant, M. & Schäfer, G. Advances in Targeting HPV Infection as Potential Alternative Prophylactic Means. Int. J. Mol. Sci. 22, (2021).

van der Meulen, E., Anderton, M., Blumenthal, M. J. & Schäfer, G. Cellular Receptors Involved in KSHV Infection. Viruses 13, doi:10.3390/v13010118 (2021).

Anderton, M., van der Meulen, E., Blumenthal, M. J. & Schäfer, G. The Role of the Eph Receptor Family in Tumorigenesis. Cancers 13, doi:10.3390/cancers13020206 (2021).

Riou, C., Schäfer, G. et al. Rapid, simplified whole blood-based multiparameter assay to quantify and phenotype SARS-CoV-2 specific T cells. medRxiv, doi:10.1101/2020.10.30.20223099 (2020).

Blumenthal, M. J., Cornejo Castro, E. M., Whitby, D., Katz, A. A. & Schafer, G. Evidence for altered host genetic factors in KSHV infection and KSHV-related disease development. Reviews in medical virology, e2160, doi:10.1002/rmv.2160 (2020).