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UWC Science Student Scoops up an International Award

UWC Science Student Scoops up an International Award

The University of the Western Cape (UWC) is proud to celebrate its science researcher Usisipho Feleni who received the  L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women In Science Fellowship yesterday - her second prestigious science award this year.

Earlier last month (August) she clenched a science award at the Department of Science and Technology’s South African Women in Science Awards (WISA).

Feleni, from the Department of Chemistry at UWC, will be receiving this award at the Melrose Arch venue.

The young researcher from the Eastern Cape, is doing groundbreaking work looking for a solution to finding more effective ways to provide the best medication dosages for breast cancer patients, since different people respond differently to breast cancer medication. She obtained her BSc Honours in chemistry from UWC in 2012 and her MSc Nanoscience degree (with a specialisation in nanochemistry) from the University in 2014. Currently, she is enrolled for a PhD Chemistry degree (with a specialisation in nanobiosensors) at the same university.

Her research is a valuable contribution to society, and in acknowledgement, she recently won a Women in Science Award (WISA) which recognises that the research contributions of female scientists are in fact highly competitive. Generally, a WISA award winner serves as a role model to younger women and young girls. Feleni’s research involves developing a device that would help to determine appropriate dosages of tamoxifen for breast cancer patients.

When she lost a relative in 2006 who was dear to her, and who was HIV positive and undergoing ARV medication, the experience drew her to this career and field of research. During that time she did not understand what could have caused her loved one’s untimely death.

Subsequently at varsity her research projects at both Honours and MSc level into how ARVs are broken down in the body led her to have a better understanding of drug toxicity, how different drugs respond differently to different individuals, and how different patients each have their unique drug dose-response profile. This opened her eyes to the reason she lost a family member who was taking ARV drugs, yet failed to get better.

Today, it is exciting for Feleni to know that her research will help determine the best dosage of tamoxifen - medication used in treating breast cancer. Since 2011 when she was working on her BSc Honours degree project, Feleni has been fascinated with inter-individual variability in drug metabolism, particularly for antiretroviral, anti-tuberculosis and breast cancer drugs, and how this is related to patients’ responses to treatment, drug toxicity and drug resistance.

Her research project addresses a serious health need in South Africa: the development of a cost-effective diagnostic system for the early detection of diseases, thereby enabling timely intervention and effective management.

Alongside HIV and tuberculosis, breast cancer is regarded as a priority disease in South Africa’s health management system. Clinical oncologists and pharmacologists are trying to understand the effectiveness of tamoxifen - the most prescribed breast cancer drug in cancer therapy.

Feleni’s supervisor, Prof Emmanuel Iwuoh, says she follows a line of very successful SensorLab female PhD researchers who have been winning local and international awards due to the competitiveness of their research in addressing some of the great national and global challenges. “Prominent among these awards is the L'Oreal-UNESCO Fellowship for Women Scientists from Sub-Saharan Africa, which SensorLab researchers won in 2012, 2013 and 2014.”

Feleni's PhD project, “Smart bioelectrochemical phenotype sensors for signalling inter-individual responses to breast cancer treatment”, involves the development of a diagnostic device for the determination of a patient’s drug metabolism classification for the breast cancer drug, tamoxifen. This determination is necessary for appropriate prescription that will prevent drug toxicity due to overdose, or drug resistivity due to repeated under-dosage.

In addition to SensorLab, Miss Feleni received training at the University of Missouri Medical School in the USA, and the Centre for Biosensors and Bioelectronics at Linköping University in Sweden, which has made her a promising researcher who is certainly going to make enormous contributions in the development of sensors for clinical applications.

She is a social and academic participant involved in hostel governance, having represented her hostel block in the student representative council. She was also in the highly successful UWC women soccer and netball teams, as well as her hostel dance team. From 2008, Feleni was a prominent and a very active member of the multi-award winning UWC Creative Arts Choir that won several regional and national championships, including the National Choir Festival Championship and the National Tertiary Institution Choir Completion (SATICA).

Feleni has earned the reputation of always being ready to help SensorLab's incoming international research exchange students to acclimatise.

Her winning of a 2016 South African Women in Science Award, WISA (TATA Doctoral Scholarship), will not only help to maintain the motivational and inspirational impact SensorLab's research work has been having on undergraduate and postgraduate students, but it will also enable her to serve as a great role model during our community engagements in high schools.