A University of KwaZulu-Natal medicinal chemistry doctoral student was recently recognised as being among the continent’s leading young female scientists, her path to this journey being triggered by a friend’s mother’s death when she was in high school.
Nthabeleng Hlapisi, a Lesotho national, was among 30 women scientists honoured at the 2023 L’Oréal-Unesco (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) for Women in Science Young Talent Awards for sub-Saharan Africa, held in Botswana earlier this month.
Hlapisi and 24 other doctoral students each received €10 000 while five post-doctoral researchers will pocket €15 000.
The young academic dreams of a world “where we could harness sustainable methods and plant-mediated medicines to find affordable and accessible cures for diseases across Africa”, she said, adding that her quest to discover a drug that could treat critically ill people began with the death a friend’s mother died from HIV/Aids-related complications.
“Back then I knew there were doctors and pharmacists but I did not know about people who made drugs or who worked with pharmaceuticals,” she told IOL. The tragedy sparked a determination to help find a cure for critically ill Africans.
Many years later, the graduate of the National University of Lesotho and the University of the Free State, where she was introduced to medicinal chemistry through organic chemistry, is on the verge of a significant scientific achievement, which she hopes to complete next year before continuing with her post-doctoral studies.
“The research that landed me this award is based on using two modalities – photothermal and photodynamic therapy – where these non-invasive methods can be used to treat cancer,” she said, as alternatives to traditional methods like surgery and chemotherapy.
“With photothermal therapy, for instance, I’ll use nanoparticles which, in the presence of light, produce localised heat and selectively kill the cancer cells.”
With photodynamic therapy, she uses dyes, which in the presence of oxygen and light of a specific wave-length, will also selectively kill the cancer cells.
Hlapisi said both modalities are biocompatible, effective, non-invasive and very specific: they also have high efficacy.
“By this I mean they kill only the cancer cells, not the normal cells.”
The methods, in Africa, are still at research stage, “but in other countries like the US and UK they have already advanced to clinical trials and are being used in hospitals”.
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