Studying the actual effect of laser irradiation on biological tissue as applied in cancer therapy, wound healing and tissue regeneration, is the basis of the current collaboration between the head of the laser research group at the University of Johannesburg, Professor Heidi Abrahamse, and the CSIR National Laser Centre, through its Rental Pool Programme (RPP). Abrahamse is a grant holder of the RPP, an initiative that gives South African tertiary education institutions access to lasers, equipment, use of laboratories, as well as scientific and technical expertise.
Professor Heidi Abrahamse
Her projects involve research into phototherapeutic applications, which is the utilisation of light energy as therapeutic intervention in a variety of diseased conditions. She explains, "Photodynamic therapy is a photochemotherapeutic approach that utilises a bifunctional reagent that localises the target cancer tissue relative to the surrounding tissue and is toxic to the target tissue when exposed to light."
According to the Medical Research Council of South Africa, lung cancer has the highest incidence in South Africa, accounting for 17% of all cancer deaths. This is followed by oesophageal cancer that accounts for 14%, cervical cancer 8%, breast cancer 7% and liver cancer 6,5%. Abrahamse says, "We are currently studying these five different types of cancers, which are highly prevalent in South Africa. My work involves research into the efficacy of different photosensitisers to induce cancer cell death."
Further, she is also studying the effects of laser irradiation on delayed wound healing as experienced in diabetic patients. In recent years, great emphasis has been directed at using low intensity laser irradiation to stimulate and accentuate cellular processes to contribute to more efficient resolution of wound healing. "Diabetes has become so prevalent that most people can say that they know someone who is diabetic. One of the greatest dangers of diabetes is the economic burden that it poses to the social system of a country due to the loss of a limb that is usually an advanced result of diabetes." Abrahamse's research ultimately strives to investigate the exact molecular mechanism that underlies the use of laser irradiation in wound healing with the ultimate goal of introducing phototherapy as a non-invasive treatment with minimal trauma and few complications.
She says, "Using cell culture of monolayer anchored cell lines, laser therapy and its mechanism at a cellular and molecular level can be studied. By constructing artificial skin constructs, the 3D model of skin can be used to mimic an in vivo situation to establish the effect of laser therapy.
"Using similar models (cell culture and 3D skin constructs) the effect of different photosensitisers used in photodynamic cancer therapy can also be assessed."
According to Abrahamse, who is currently President-elect of the World Association for Laser Therapy (WALT) says, "Phototherapy has been shown to increase collagen synthesis both in vivo and in vitro. Collagen is a major component of the extra cellular matrix (ECM) and supports most tissues." Collagen degradation and synthesis is an important step during wound healing and is produced by fibroblasts. Abrahamse's laser research group also won the bid to host the WALT annual congress for the first time on the African continent in October 2008. More than 180 delegates from six continents and 28 different countries attended.
Abrahamse obtained her PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology at Wits University and serves on several research-related university committees including the Academic Ethics, Research and Higher Degrees Committees. She has published more than 40 peer-reviewed international research papers, serves on a number of advisory councils and regularly acts in the capacity of reviewer for international journals and funding bodies.
Dr Paul Motalane, head of the National Laser Centre Higher Education Institutions programmes says, "We are proud of our association with an individual of Heidi's stature. The relevancy of her work in the South African context is a major development in terms of addressing alternate cancer therapies and wound healing."
Enquiries: CSIR Communication