Phenomenal women researchers working to solve Africa's health and nutrition challenges

Women scientists at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) are working tirelessly behind the scenes to address some of Africa's most pressing challenges.

 

The effects of malnutrition, breast cancer and diabetes, as well as communicable diseases like TB, HIV/Aids and Covid-19, have been strongly felt in rural areas, particularly where there is limited access to affordable healthcare, therapeutics or nutritious food. Not having these basic services compromises the life expectancy and quality of life of people living in such areas.

 

Some inspiring women at the CSIR are using their expertise and years of research experience to tackle hunger, malnutrition and poor healthcare in rural and peri-urban areas by working towards affordable and accessible technologies.

 

Dr Nomusa Dlamini, CSIR principal researcher and Acting Research Group Leader: Food Safety Programme, and a former Fulbright Scholar, is well aware of the role that diet can play in health.  She has over 20 years' experience in food science and technology, including nutritional and phytochemical analysis, product development, and the processing of indigenous food products incorporating grains and vegetables. She works closely with small, medium and micro-enterprises (SMMEs), communities and industry to create safe and nutritional food products from indigenous plant species.

 

Part of Dlamini's job is to explore how edible indigenous plants that show health benefits can be used to formulate innovative food products. The process includes analysing plants to determine their basic nutrient content, and then preparing extracts that will provide a better understanding of their chemical profiles. She collaborates with chemists and botanists to confirm the identity of edible plants, after which the plants can be used as ingredients in nutritious food products.

 

Dlamini finds her work fulfilling because the products she and her team develop not only promote good health and food safety, but also contribute towards job creation and poverty alleviation. Her research has enabled communities to generate income, and SMMEs that have worked with her have been able to commercialise products based on indigenous knowledge.

 

Her work has been recognised by TELUS World of Science, the World Trade Organization, the Technology Innovation Agency and, most recently, World Association of Industrial and Technological Research Organizations.

 

Dr Patience Mthunzi-Kufa, CSIR principal researcher and Research Group Leader: Biophotonics, has been spearheading the development and design of novel healthcare solutions for 18 years, the past three focused mainly on photonics-based point-of-care diagnostic devices and biosensors for HIV, TB, Covid-19 and non-communicable diseases, and machine learning for point-of-care diagnostics.  She has also been involved in research into counterfeit drug screening devices.

 

"The work that we do is aimed at reducing the burden of disease in developing countries. Infectious diseases are a major cause of mortality, and our primary goal is therefore to develop multi-screening, portable devices for HIV, TB and Covid-19 through the Biophotonics Facility. Through these diagnostic technologies, we hope to provide patients in rural and peri-urban areas, who might not have access to laboratories or healthcare facilities, with non-invasive and cost-effective medical devices, allowing them to monitor and manage their health in the comfort of their own homes," says Mthunzi-Kufa.

 

A laser scientist with expertise in biophotonics, laser physics, medical biochemistry, molecular biology, virology and biochemistry, Mthunzi-Kufa played an instrumental role in setting up South Africa's first Biophotonics Facility. Through her forward-thinking approach and industry-facing business strategies, she has managed to secure over R150 million in research grants towards projects performed in biophotonics.

 

Beyond the lab-based research, Mthunzi-Kufa is passionate about sharing her work through high-impact, peer-reviewed journals and popular science magazines, and at local and international conferences. The Academy of Science of South Africa selected her as one of four young scientists to represent South Africa at the World Economic Forum's Summer Davos conference in Dalian, China, in 2011. Mthunzi-Kufa has also served as a reviewer for the Journal of Biomedical Optics and as an external moderator for the Biomedical Technology IV module at the Tshwane University of Technology.

 

Herself a recipient of the Order of Mapungubwe in Bronze for her national and international contribution in the biochemistry and biophotonics fields, Mthunzi-Kufa was recently appointed by the Office of the Presidency as the Deputy Chairperson of the Advisory Council on National Orders. Her role includes advising the President of South Africa on nominations received for deserving South African and foreign nationals to receive National Orders.

 

Dr Bathabile Ramalapa, a CSIR senior researcher, is a South African recognised by InspiringFifty, a global initiative to increase diversity in technology. With over a decade of experience on the global stage, Ramalapa uses her work in nanotechnology and nanomedicine to develop drug delivery formulations that offer more patient-centric drug treatments for breast cancer and diabetes patients in Africa.

 

This research focus is informed by her desire to create more effective drug treatments that ensure that breast cancer and diabetes patients consume the right quantity of drugs required by the body, reducing side effects.

 

"Drug treatments that are currently available on the market sometimes have problems related to absorption, bioavailability and resistance.  As a result, they tend to have toxic side effects on diabetes and breast cancer patients. My focus is on reformulating existing drug treatments to make them more patient-centric. This essentially means reconfiguring a drug in such a way that it has higher absorption and bioavailability –making sure that the prescribed drug has the right concentration for the body to respond positively, so that the side effects are reduced and, possibly, the dose," says Ramalapa.

 

She collaborates with partners from government, higher education and local SMMEs with the objective of enhancing patient drug compliance and reducing healthcare costs.

 

As a scientist with a PhD in pharmaceutical sciences and another in chemical sciences, her exceptional expertise has won her a visiting scholar travel grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a Novartis research scientist fellowship, and the European Union Dual PhD Grant. She also lends her expertise to the National Research Foundation Grant Review Committee on Chemistry and Material Sciences and the South African Medical Research Council Grant Review Committee on Life Sciences and Chemistry.

 

The CSIR strives to accelerate socio-economic prosperity through innovation, and prides itself on attracting exceptional scientific talent to develop innovative solutions in response to the needs of the country and continent.

 

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