CSIR researcher, Ivy Ndhundhuma, is at the forefront of the photodynamic diagnosis technique that can be applied for early detection of cancerous cells. The aim is to be able to use this novel technique for early diagnosis of skin cancer and treatment. “Cancer in general is a deadly disease,” she says.
The activities of the biophotonics group are primarily aimed at the development and improvement of various therapeutic and diagnostic medical applications of lasers. This new innovative diagnostic technique relies on the principle of differential fluorescence emission of a photosensitive drug between abnormal and normal tissues in response to excitation by a specific wavelength of laser light within a visible spectrum range.
Ndhundhuma says that every human being has cancer cells in the body. “These cancer cells do not show up in the standard tests until they have multiplied to a few billion to reach the detectable size,” she says, adding that South Africa has the second highest incidence of skin cancer in the world after Australia due to high amounts of ultra violet (UV) radiation. “Squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck recurs locally in nearly half of patients treated by surgical resection, radiation, and/or chemotherapy.”
Malignant melanoma is the uncommon type, but most dangerous of all skin cancers as it may metastasize to other parts of the body such as liver, spleen and lymph nodes, she explains.
Three things that keep Ndhundhuma on tenterhooks about this research are: the uniqueness of the photodynamic diagnosis; potential to reduce treatment costs; and saving lives. With this technique, cancer can be diagnosed at an early stage.
“Most skin cancers can be cured if found and treated early,” says Ndhundhuma adding that in a country such as South Africa, where skin cancer prevalence is high, leading to direct and indirect medical costs, early diagnosis research will undoubtedly save lives as well as the country’s costs and other social services in treatment – not to mention a significant reduction in human suffering, paralysis and mortality. “Early diagnosis is one of society's most cost-effective medical interventions,” she remarks.
Working at the CSIR has enabled Ndhundhuma, through a National Research Foundation travel grant, to visit the Institute for Laser Technology in Medicine and Measuring Engineering (ILM) at Ulm, Germany for training in advanced analysis of the applicability and efficiency of photosensitizers (drugs) applied for photodynamic cancer therapy using conventional as well as advanced biological cell and tissue models as they are applied at ILM.
Her visit has led to the publication of a journal paper and possible collaboration with ILM scientist. This paper appeared as a cover article of the August issue of the journal Medical Laser Application – a wonderful honour for Ivy on women’s month, given that she is also first author on the article. To encourage the collaboration, the ILM Institute donated a Laser Scanning Microscope (LSM-410) which can be tailored for use in fluorescence applications.
Ndhundhuma holds an MTech degree in biomedical science from the Tshwane University of Technology. She is currently registered for a doctorate at the University of Johannesburg.
Initially, she studied analytical chemistry but her interest in the biomedical field saw her changing career lanes. “The reason I am interested in this research is that I want to understand laser-tissue interaction technologies and come up with a non-invasive modality for cancer diagnosis,” says Ndhundhuma. “This is a potential application to reduce human suffering and mortality due to cancer and the cost of cancer treatment.”
Apart from her being married with three children, and being a female scientist, Ndhundhuma comments that working in a male-dominated field has not been easy - however, it is not necessarily difficult. “Anyone who is determined to achieve great things in life can and will make it eventually,” she concludes.
News contributed by Mzimasi Gcukumana, CSIR Strategic Communication and Stakeholder Relations
06 September 2011