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Research Week 2017: Tiza Ng'uni, Kraalbos And Fighting Germs

Tiza Ng’uni and Kraalbos doing their bit to curb drug resistance in microorganism

Science has a long history with understanding and fighting deadly microbes. In the nineteenth century, Louis Pasteur uncovered germ theory: the idea that microorganisms cause fermentation and disease. In the twentieth century, Alexander Fleming discovered the world’s first antibiotic substance, penicillin. And since then, we have discovered many other antibiotics and saved millions of lives that would be otherwise lost to disease.

Unfortunately, the twenty-first century has brought new challenges: Over time, microorganisms have become resistant to commonly-used antimicrobial agents, thus creating the modern day problem of multi-drug resistance in a wide range of diseases such as cancer.

To fight this - and save lives - we need new antimicrobial agents...and one way of finding those is through the investigation of medicinal plants.

That’s where Dr Tiza Ng’uni’s work comes into it.

Her thesis, written and submitted for her PhD from the University of the Western Cape’s (UWC) Department of Medical Biosciences,  is titled, The medicinal uses of Galenia Africana: A study of the antimicrobial antifungal and anticancer properties, and explores the potential contributions of kraalbos to microbial science, and earned.

Tiza explains the significance of her work (among other matters) below.?

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I’m Tiza Lucy Ng’uni, born in a town called Lusaka in Zambia, the eldest in a family of three children. I have a beautiful daughter who is my pride and joy, and I spend a lot of my free time in church. I also like to relax by reading non-scientific material to broaden my perspective.

What is your research is about - in a nutshell?

My research was mainly focused on investigating the resistance of microorganisms to antimicrobial agents - i.e. the problem of multidrug resistance - especially in cancer. The rich and diverse flora in South Africa was the core of my research study, using Galenia africana (kraalbos), a South African medicinal plant that has been shown to possess antifungal and antimycobacterial properties. This plant has been used in the treatment of skin infections, eye inflammation, toothaches and wounds, so my research was aimed at assessing the toxicity profile of Galenia africana using in vitro and in vivo acute toxicity studies, in addition to evaluating its potential antimicrobial, antifungal and anticancer properties.

My research study results revealed that G. africana can be employed in the treatment of bacterial and fungal infections, as well as cancer.

What does your research mean for South Africa?

Multidrug resistance is a growing concern worldwide: the rate at which resistance develops is greater than the rate at which new drugs are being produced, and this puts a strain on the healthcare sector and hence the need for alternative treatment options. South Africa is no exception - but we have a wide variety of medicinal plants, some of which are being explored for their potential to treat a wide range of diseases.

My work is part of this - the additional information I supply on the activity of G. africana contributes to the knowledge of beneficial properties of medicinal plants commonly found in South Africa.

Why did you pursue this field of study?

I chose to study Medical Biosciences because it is one of the scientific fields that can make a meaningful contribution in healthcare, and we are able to serve the community in a real and relevant way. I’m fascinated by the fact that the health-care system depends on research, not only to find alternative treatment options for drugs that are ineffective or have numerous side effects, but also to have a better understanding of the various ailments emerging globally.

What is it about this field that still excites you the most?

It’s exciting to me studying and understanding how the mode of action of infectious agents enhances proper diagnosis, thereby being able to identify an effective choice of treatment. I have always been convinced that medical research is among the key aspects of global health-care and understanding it has always fascinated me. In addition to my studies, my work experience further strengthened my affinity for medical biosciences as I was able to understand that acquiring skills in the use of different laboratory tests and techniques on samples is crucial for addressing global health challenges.

What made UWC the university for you?

I chose to study at the University of the Western Cape because it is one of the best universities in South Africa. UWC offers an excellent learning environment, including some of the best state-of-the-art laboratories and equipment - particularly important, considering the fact that my field of study centers mainly on laboratory work. And as a result, I have the skills to try to make a major contribution in the healthcare industry, in the hope of saving lives. UWC has indeed been a ‘place of quality, a place to grow, from hope to action through knowledge’.??

What are you most proud of accomplishing during your time at UWC?

I am proud of the fact that I was - and I still am - able to impact the lives of so many students through the skills and knowledge I have learned over the years.

In the past few years, I have been part of the work-study programme in MBS, interacting with undergrads. I’ve also been facilitating lab work and co-supervising BSc Hons and MSc students, and have lectured Anatomy and Physiology as well as Medical Microbiology to Nursing, Dentistry and MBS undergraduate students.

Through these interactions and thanks to my previous work experience, I’ve been able to mentor the students and give them advice on their career paths while helping them with their academic studies.

Any advice for young researchers just starting off their careers?

My advice is just this: there is no substitute for hard work - it is a tool towards excellence. Research in Africa is becoming more advanced and having scientists with the proper skills and credentials is critical - so make sure you’re one of them.

Do you have any folks that you admire or would like to acknowledge for their support?

My mum has been a rock and pillar of support, especially after the demise of my dad - one of my saddest moments. Seeing my mother’s work ethic, leadership, perseverance, and sacrifice enabled me to be the woman I am today.

My supervisor, Prof Burtram Fielding, has always seen the potential in me; through his drive, motivation and support, he ensured that I didn’t give up even when I felt like quitting. My co-supervisor, Prof Klaasen, has also been a source of help, encouragement and motivation to me, through the most difficult parts of my research.

Last but definitely not least, I would like to acknowledge my father in the Lord, Apostle Stephan Kiasso, who has enabled me to have a deeper and more meaningful relationship with God.

Anything else you want to add?

It has been a great delight for me to be part of UWC community - and no matter where I go or what I’m doing, I will always be proudly UDUBS.