UWC scientist receives international fellowship

A scientist from the University of the Western Cape has been honoured for her work, which will help doctors find the best drug dosages for breast cancer patients.

Usisipho Feleni, 27, originally from the small village of Ndungwana, near Cofimvaba in the Eastern Cape, has been awarded the Unesco-L’Oréal International Fellowship, receiving 10 000 euros (more than R150 000).

She has been trying to develop a cheap way to diagnose disease early enough to manage it more effectively.

Her work focuses on using “smart bio-electrochemical sensing and signalling” to find optimal dosages of the breast cancer drug, tamoxifen, which patients can respond to in vastly different ways.

Her diagnostic system determines the rate at which a cancer patient will clear tamoxifenfrom their system. Some clear it faster than others.

“The sensing protocol will be suitable for use at a doctor’s office to provide a patient’s full response pattern for tamoxifen, and, therefore, assist the doctor to determine appropriate dose,” Ms Feleni said.

She received her fellowship at a prestigious ceremony in Johannesburg on Wednesday September 28.

For the past 18 years, the L’Oreal-Unesco For Women in Science programme has promoted women scientists all over the world, including 14 from sub-Saharan Africa.

“Our changing world has never been in greater need of women and their discoveries,” said Sandeep Rai, managing director of L’Oreal South Africa.

Ms Feleni has been working on her project since 2014 at UWC’s SensorLab, under the supervision of Professor Emmanuel Iwuoha, the South African Research Chair for NanoElectrochemistry and Sensor Technology.

The UWC SensorLab is the top electrochemistry and biosensor research centre in South Africa and in the African continent.

Ms Feleni said she had been fascinated by the various metabolic responses patients could have to the same drug since 2011 while doing her BSc Honours project on “biotransformation of antiretroviral (ARV) drugs, and how it is related to the response to treatment, drug toxicity and drug resistivity”.

She said her “b-cancernanosens protocol” would assist in “identifying poor, moderate and ultra-rapid metabolisers of tamoxifen”.

Poor and ultra-rapid metabolisers risked suffering drug toxicity and non-response to treatment, respectively.

“My research project calls for better understanding of the variations in patients’ drug dose-response profile and the personalisation of treatment,” said Ms Feleni.

In line with Breast Cancer Awareness Month, she encouraged women to look after their health, the same way they take care of their appearance.

“Regular mammogram check-ups and other forms of breast examination should be part of every young woman’s lifestyle, particularly those who a have family history of breast cancer. Also for breast cancer patients who are taking tamoxifen or any other breast cancer drug, if they are not responding to treatment they should discuss with their doctor the need to check their drug-response profile to ensure appropriate dosage that will result in effective therapy,” she said.

Ms Feleni obtained her BSc Honours in chemistry from UWC in 2012 and her MSc nanoscience degree from the university in 2014.

She is enrolled for a PhD chemistry degree with a specialisation in nanobiosensors. In August she clinched a science award at the Department of Science and Technology’s South African Women in Science Awards (WISA).