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Department of Medical Bioscience - Research Interests and Current Projects

The Department of Medical Biosciences is a vibrant department, comprising the disciplines of Anatomy, Medical Microbiology and Physiology, and offers exciting opportunities for research to dynamic and motivated postgraduate students. The main thrusts of the postgraduate programme involve understanding the relationship between ‘Lifestyle and Disease’ as well as ‘Understanding of the Pathology of Disease’ through cutting edge research.

Specific expertises reside within the broad research fields of Anatomy, Cardiovascular Physiology, Herbal Sciences, Immunology, Medical Microbiology, Molecular & Cell Biology, Neuroscience, Reproduction, Toxicology and Virology, which collaborate interdisciplinary.

  • The neonatal lung project focuses on the effects of nicotine in lung development and potential strategies to counteract the adverse effects of smoking in lung development.

  • The reproductive biology project focuses on the effects of traditional African herbal remedies on male reproductive functions, the development of new male contraceptive strategies of plant origin, plant extracts that may have both anti-viral (particularly anti-HIV) and anti-bacterial properties as well as on the understanding of the adverse effects of male and female genital tract infections on the fertilization process and the health of the infant.

  • Two major projects on apoptosis (programmed, gene controlled cell death) focus on cancer cells and cardiac cells as modes to anti-cancer therapies and compromised heart cells. Moreover, these projects also investigate the pharmacological effect of various phytochemicals on different cardiovascular diseases, e.g. hypertension.

  • The environmental water pollution project focuses on the development of immuno-assays for biomarkers for physiological system (endocrine, reproductive, immune) modulation in order to improve the quality control of drinking water quality.

  • Newly emerging projects explore microbes and their effects on female morbidity and dental health as well as the mechanisms of infection of coronavirus to cause severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

The principal investigators in the department are mostly NRF-rated scientists, publish in internationally renowned journals and enjoy considerable international recognition. Strong collaborative ties exist between prominent research groups in Australia, Chile, Germany, Singapore, the USA and elsewhere. 

M.Sc and PhD programmes are offered in the following research areas. (Potential supervisors are indicated )

  • Anatomy (Dr. Abdul-Rasool, Prof. Monsees, Dr. Mbonile)

  • Cardiovascular Physiology (Prof. Dietrich, Mr. Burger)

  • Cell Biology / Cancer Research (Prof. de Kock, Prof. Hiss, Dr. Abdul-Rasool )

  • Electrophysiology (Prof. Fisher)

  • Immunology (Prof. Pool)

  • Lung Research (Prof. Maritz)

  • Medical Microbiology (Prof. Africa, Dr. Klaasen, Dr. Morris)

  • Human and Animal Reproduction (Prof. Henkel, Prof. Monsees, Prof. van der Horst, Prof. Fisher)

  • Neuroscience (Dr. de Smidt, Dr. McBride, Prof Fisher)

  • Toxicology (Prof. Monsees, Prof. Pool)

  • Virology & Molecular Biology (Prof. Fielding, Prof. Hiss, Dr. Klaasen)

  • Food Toxicology (Dr Morris)

Dr Sahar Abdul-Rasool

Areas of Expertise: Molecular Biology
Current Project
  • Molecular markers of breast cancer micrometastasis
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Mr. Andries Burger

He has extensive experience in the use of computers in physiological research and in education. He has university qualifications not only in mathematics, zoology botany, biochemistry and physiology but also in tertiary and continuing education as well as in computer science. He developed hardware and software to capture and analyze analog and digital data with high precision. He also developed instrumentation for microperfusion and measurement of transmembrane potential differences in isolated kidney (nephron) segments and for the recording of the contractile parameters of isolated cardiac trabeculae while observing the latter under a fluorescent microscope. This system can be used to investigate the changes occuring in cardiac muscle under variouis experimental conditions. He developed a system that can be used for open circuit spirometry in humans and in small experimental animals. This system facilitates the determination of respiratory parameters and the indirect measurment of metabolic rate, RER, %fat/%CHO consumption etc.  He developed software for the determination of contractile parameters in isolated aorta rings. He is currently involved in investigating the effect of extracts of a plant used in traditional medicine on mammalian cardiovascular function. He has instrumentation set up to determine the inotropic and chronotropic effects of these extracts in in vivo as well as in in vitro mammalian models. He is interested in exercise physiology and the relationship of the respiratory and cardiovascular function to physical performance. He also has an interest in malignant cancer and radiotherapy and will be interested in collaborative work in any of the obove fields. In summary: He is a general physiologist with extensive experience in physiology education at a tertiary education level and a specific interest in the renal system; respiratory system; heart and cardiovascular system as well as in exercise physiology and malignent tumours.


Prof. Maryna de Kock    

Most of her research is centred on providing evidence for the chemopreventative efficacy of certain compounds on malignant cells in vitro. This is accomplished by identifying the molecular mechanisms causing quiescence, anti- mitotic, cytotoxic effects and apoptosis or autophagy in various types of transformed cells. She believes that more knowledge of the molecular processes (signal transduction and growth control) affected by anti-tumour agents may aid in the treatment of cancer.

In an equivalent study on breast cancer cells, she and her team hope to improve knowledge of the mechanism of hormonal resistance and the relationship between estrogen signaling and cell growth pathways. It is known that estrogen and the estrogen receptors (ERs) are critical regulators of breast epithelial cell proliferation, differentiation, and apoptosis. Resistance to anti-estrogen therapy used effectively for ER positive invasive breast cancer in many patients, unfortunately often develops.  By using anti-estrogen compounds in combination with novel anti-tumor extracts from plants she anticipates to overcome the development of resistance to endocrine therapies. The research could then provide the basis for combining signaling pathway inhibitors with endocrine therapies.  

Current Projects

  • The radiosensitizing effect of PGA2 in MCF-10A and MCF-7 cells irradiated with x rays and neutrons.

  • In vitro cell signaling events of Herceptin® (trastuzumab) and Tamoxifen in breast adenocarcinoma (SUM 185 PE and SUM 44 PE) and a non-tumorigenic breast epithelial (MCF 10A) cell line

  • Flavonoid dietary interactions in relation to their potential anti- and/or pro-oxidant properties

  • Comparative in vitro study of the anti-tumour effect of apricot and peach kernel extracts on HT-29 human colon cancer cells

  • The modulation of colon carcinogenesis by dietary ω-6/ω-3  fatty acid ratios: a chemopreventive strategy.

Prof. Daneel Dietrich

In our laboratory we developed a model of diet-induced hypertension and insulin resistance to study the use of phytotherapy in hypertension dvelopment and treatment.  Other research includes the development of hypertension due to intrauterine stress, and its complications.

Current Projects

  • The antihypertensive effects of Buchu water

  • Effects of maternal nicotine exposure on the blood pressure of the offspring

Dr. Okobi Ekpo   

Dr. Ekpo’s research interests include studying the neuroprotective effects of pharmaceutical products and herbal extracts against potential damage caused by environmental toxicants, irradiation and diseases. He uses cultured neural cells, tissues and animal model systems of nervous system disorders to investigate changes in cell and tissue morphology, cell viability and cell death. Techniques include basic histology, immunocytochemistry, immunohistochemistry, electron microscopy and morphometric analysis.     

Current Projects

  • Effects of rooibos herbal tea and Bisphenol-A on bEnd5 cell lines

Dr Burtram Fielding

The development of drugs against RNA virus infections is expected to have a significant impact on human health-related quality of life. RNA viruses include in excess of 350 different major human pathogens and are responsible for many emerging diseases. These viruses are responsible for not only very frequent benign diseases, but also for millions of deaths each year in both industrialized and developing countries. Among the most significant viral infectious agents are the coronaviruses, responsible for between 10- 15% of all common colds in the world. Very few effective antiviral drugs against these viruses exist. In the USA alone, the common cold leads to ~100 million GP visits at a conservative cost estimate of US$7.7 billion per year. Also, up to 189 million school days are missed annually due to a cold, resulting in 126 million parents missing workdays to stay home to care for their children. This leads to a total economic impact of cold-related work loss exceeding US$20 billion per year.Prof Fielding’s research group in the Molecular Virology Laboratory (MVL) focuses on the interaction of RNA viruses with the human host at the molecular level. Currently we are focussing on the emerging human coronaviruses SARS-CoV and HCoV-NL63. MVL is studying the role of viral-viral and viral-host protein interactions, with the specific aim at elucidating the role of these interactions in virus pathogenicity.

Prof David Fisher

Male Reproduction and Contraception Research group:
Exploring the Electrophysiological and Molecular Properties of the Testis with a view to Reversible Male Contraception.

The seminiferous tubule is a likely site in the male reproductive tract to which manipulation (using various plant extracts, drugs and/or hormones) could result in reversible sterilization (male contraception?). Highly sophisticated electrophysiological techniques are currently used to study the physiological properties of the seminiferous tubule in our laboratory. Seminiferous tubules are essentially made up of two types of cells:  Sertoli and germ cells. The Sertoli cells are crucial for the support and development of germ cells into sperm cells. One particular feature of this process is the formation of tight junctions between adjacent Sertoli (TM4) cells (which constitutes the blood-testis barrier). As these tight junctions develop between adjacent TM4 cells, the permeability across the monolayer decreases and this variable can be measured using a TER Ohmmeter. Our lab also measures intracellular potentials and membrane currents which gives substantial evidence of transport of ions across a cell membrane as well as to the permeability of cell membranes.

We will collect data on the effects of selected plant extracts on the assembly or disassembly of tight junction molecules. This will therefore indicate whether or not the Blood-Testis Barrier will be compromised and therefore also spermatogenesis. Identifying an active molecular species within a plant extract capable of reversibly compromising the tight junction molecules will be tantamount to identifying a possible male contraceptive.

The experimental techniques of this research provide exciting research avenues for the future testing of drugs (male contraceptives),  hormones or combinations thereof on the germinal epithelium (Sertoli cells).

Male Reproduction and Contraception Research group: Prof D Fisher, Prof Ralf Henkel, Prof Thomas Monsees, Prof Doug Bowles, Dr Ekobi Ekpo, Averouz Maritz, Nicole Haines, Hitesh Harribhai.

Neurobiology Group:
Effects of methamphetamine (Tik) on the Blood-Brain Barrier

Several immortalized endothelial cell lines are currently being developed as in vitro models for the blood-brain barrier (BBB). b.End5 cells are one of only two commercially available mouse brain capillary cell lines and still need to be fully characterized in terms of their ability to mimic the in vivo BBB characteristics. The function of the BBB, which is created by tight junctions between adjacent endothelial cells, is to protect the underlying brain parenchyma from blood-borne toxins and pathogens while maintaining the optimal ionic milieu for neural function. The abuse of illegal methamphetamine (METH), a powerful psycho stimulant that is eroding the lives and families of especially poor communities in the Western Cape, has long been a world-wide public health problem. Due the lipid-soluble nature of METH, it diffuses across the plasma membrane of brain endothelial cells, by-passing the paracellular barrier of tight junctions, and has severe neurotoxic effects. In addition, METH weakens the integrity of the BBB, making it susceptible to bacteria and viruses such as HIV-AIDS. There is presently a scarcity of studies dealing with the effects of METH on tight junction expression and those which have have analyzed the effects of METH after 24hrs and beyond. This study has, however, focused on the immediate and short term effects of both pure and street METH (“tik”, confiscated by the SAPS) on bEnd5 cells, and also the long term physiological and morphological affects . Here we propose several mechanisms whereby the junctional complexes of b.End5 cells are altered by METH exposure and attempt to correlate these changes to the functioning of the BBB in vivo.

Neurobiology Group: Professor David Fisher, Dr Kareemah Gamieldien, Dr Okobi Ekpo, Dr Ruth McBride, Ms Linda Sissing, Shireen Mentor, Tarryn Prinsloo, Tahirah Boltman, Siya Mafunda, Kelly Thomas.

Prof. Ralf Henkel   

  • Effects of indigenous medicinal plants and their extracts on male reproductive functions

  • Relationship between sperm ROS production, normal morphology, chromatin condensation and DNA damage

  • Male genital tract infections

  • Obesity, metabolic syndrome and male fertility/infertility

  • Zinc metabolism and sperm motility

  • Prostate cancer

  • Aging males problems and their treatment

Current Projects

  • Effect of Eurycoma longifolia (Tongkat Ali) on prostate cancer cells and benign prostatic hyperplasia; 

  • Effect of South African herbal extracts on male reproductive functions; 

  • Are systemic inflammatory cytokines associated with the metabolic syndrome involved in the pathogenesis of male infertility?; 

  • The relationship between systemic oxidative stress, reproductive oxidative stress and infertility in men diagnosed with metabolic syndrome

 Prof. Donavon Hiss

The Molecular Oncology Drug Discovery and Lead Optimization Technology (MODALOT) Division of the Department of Medical Biosciences is located in the Life Sciences Building (LSB) at the University of the Western Cape (UWC).  This division engenders the concept of applying innovative molecular technologies and combinatorial approaches to design and develop personalized cancer and other medicines that might be potentially beneficial to patients and profoundly impact drug commercialization and health-care systems in the global arena. MODALOT strives to be an integral role player in developing cancer research potential and capacity in South Africa.  The strategic focus areas of MODALOT include comprehensive training of medical scientists in molecular oncology, oncotherapeutics and oncotechnology, strengthening of expertise in cancer drug discovery and development, realizing the ideal of global excellence and creativity in oncology through biopartnerships with academia, government, industry and pharmaceutical companies, and advancing novel and beneficial cancer therapies.

Current Projects

At present, Modalot explores six oncologic themes or paradigms. 

  • Multi-Targeted Kinase Inhibitors - Molecular and Therapeutic Targeting of Cancer Cell Signalling and Proliferation Networks: Correlation with Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor (EGFR) Biomarker Profiles, Drug Sensitivity, Resistance and the Efficacy of Drug Combinations;

  • Implications of Endoplasmic Reticulum Stress, the Unfolded Protein Response and Apoptosis for Molecular Cancer Therapy - Correlation of Drug-Induced Endoplasmic Reticulum Stress, the Unfolded Protein Response and Apoptosis with Human Tumour Cell Growth and Survival;

  • The Role of P-Glycoprotein in Drug-Sensitive and Drug-Resistant Cancer Cell Lines and Correlation with Statins and Cancer Prevention Strategies - Analysis of Mechanism-Based Synergy with Anticancer Drugs;

  • Optimizing Molecular-Targeted Therapies in Ovarian Cancer - The Renewed Surge of Interest in Ovarian Cancer Biomarkers and Cell Signaling Pathways;

  • Optimization and Preclinical Design of Genetically-Engineered Viruses for Human Oncolytic Therapy;

  • Traditional- & Phyto-Medicines in Drug Combinations - The Search for Synergy and Increased Efficacy with Current Cancer Therapies 

Dr. Liana Maree   

  • Research assistant in an immunology lab – cell separation, cell culture, flow cytometry

  • Research assistant in clinical trials on children with HIV/Aids – flow cytometry to determine: CD4/CD8, CD69 and CD18/CD80 cell counts; apoptosis with Annexin V; and burst test

  • Principal investigator of research project on mammalian sperm at UWC – semen analysis, sperm motility parameters using CASA, sperm morphometric measurements using ASMA, TEM to determine structure of sperm components, structure and viability of sperm mitochondria

Current Project

  • Morphometric features, function and species specificity of mammalian sperm mitochondria

Prof. Gert Maritz

Research. The effect of maternal nicotine exposure during gestation and/or lactation on lung development in the offpring

  • Morphometric, morphologic changes of the lungs of the offspring

  • Structural functional changes

  • Extracellular matrix adjustments

  • Transgenerational effects

Dr. Lumuli Mbonile 

Research interests include studying histopathological and histochemical changes of placenta in women infected with malaria and HIV, surgical site infections (SSI), acute haemorrhagic conjunctivitis epidemics and health research ethics in researches involving minors.

  • Morphological changes of placental malaria and pregnancy outcome.
  • Childrens’ and parents’/ guardians’ understanding of rights, risks and benefits associated with research involving minors. 

Dr. Ruth McBride

I am in the process of developing an in vitro model of the blood-brain-barrier (BBB) to answer the following questions:

  • How does street methamphetamine (“tik”) weaken the BBB?

  • How neurotoxic is “tik”?

  • How does “tik” affect the immune system?

  • Are there any medicinal plant extracts that can treat or reverse the damage caused by “tik”?

  • The techniques that I am using include tissue culture, basic histology and fluorescence microscopy.

Prof. Thomas Monsees    

Effect of traditional African medicinal plants on mammalian reproduction and reproductive cell physiology and toxicology

Fluorescence live cell imaging, analysis of intracellular events in real time, cell migration

Biocompatibility and clinical relevance of novel biomaterials

Current Projects

  • Effect of tea and indigenous Rooibos and Honeybush teas on mammalian reproduction and fertility

  • Effects of Libyan traditional plants on the reproductive system of male and female rats

  • Real-time fluorescence microscopy image analysis of testicular cell physiology in response to external stimuli"

Dr. Thureyah Morris

Current research focus is on distribution of antimicrobial resistance and antimicrobial use along the food chain (link between antimicrobial use in agriculture) with resistance in human pathogenic and commensal organisms.

Current projects
  • The detection of antibiotic residues in commercial poultry in the Western Cape region of South Africa.

  • The detection of antibiotic resistanat pathogens in commercial food samples in the Western Cape. 

Mr. Cleyson Mupfiga


  • The relationship between male genital tract infections, oxidative status, and apoptosis in human spermatozoa.

  • The metabolism and trafficking of zinc in the male reproductive tract and its relationship with the development and function of mammalian spermatozoa

Current Projects

  • Zinc trafficking in human spermatozoa

Prof. Edmund Pool   

My research focus is the effects of environment (food, air and water) on physiological systems.

Specific projects that my group are currently busy with are:

  • The effects of informal settlements on the microbial and chemical quality of surface water.

  • The efficacy of sewage treatment plants to remove endocrine disruptors.

  • The development of bioremediation systems for endocrine disruptor removal from sewage.

  • The impact of food and natural products on mammalian physiological systems.

  • The development of Xenopus laevis organ cultures to monitor environmental toxicants.

  • Development and implementation of crab haemolymph biomarker assays for environmental monitoring.

Dr. Chontrelle Willemse   

Improving the quality of teaching and learning, by monitoring and evaluating the areas of anatomy and physiology.

Current projects

  • Multitasking in the classroom of Human Biology I for nursing, and the impact on the students' academic performance. 

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