Only a handful of people in South Africa have mastered Stem Cell reprogramming and Dimakatso Gumede (34) is one of them.
As the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) candidate researcher of the Bioengineering and Integrated Genomics Research Group with the CSIR NextGen Health Cluster, she works on creating disease models of the innate immune system to study unique African gene variants that lead to elite controllers that naturally control viral load levels without antiretroviral therapy.
By using induced pluripotent stem cell technology, the CSIR research group also creates “mini liver” models in order to determine the adverse drug affects in the South African population.
“The African population is known for its genetic variation, which often affects the way in which an individual responds to particular medication. For example, while an aspirin may work effectively for 70% of the population, it is possible that the remaining 30% may experience adverse effects. Therefore, as part of CSIR’s Bioengineering and Integrated Genomics group, we are looking to create effective and personalised medication for those who do not respond positively to the drugs that have been distributed for the general population,” says Gumede.
Gumede, who is a PhD scholar of the University of Cape Town (UCT), recently submitted her doctoral thesis. She studied the role of a gene mutation that causes skin and lung fibrosis, using a scientific method called induced pluri-potent stem cells.
This approach produces any cell type in the body, such as skin or lung cells, which, in this case, provides insight into how an inherited dermatological condition is associated with lung fibrosis – a condition caused by uncontrolled scar formation that affects the organ and air sacks.
However, this was not Gumede’s original project. Initially, her PhD project was on cardio genetics, and she was working with the late Prof. Bongani Mayosi and Dr Gasnat Shabooden at the UCT Hatter Institute for Cardiovascular Research in Africa.
“While I was busy with my initial research project, the late Prof. Mayosi suggested that I shift the focus of my project to the study of a rare genetic condition that is associated with lung, skin and muscle fibrosis. I was excited because not only was it a ground-breaking research project that would serve as a massive breakthrough for the South African medical science sector, but it would also provide me with the opportunity to apply my cell biology expertise,” says Gumede.
With the assistance of Prof. Susan Kidson and Dr Robea Ballo, Gumede focused mainly on the cell biology of the rare skin condition in question.
She learnt a great deal about reprogramming skin cells into pluripotent cells to understand what causes this gene mutation, how this rare skin condition develops at cellular level and how or why it affects organs such as the lungs and muscles and prevents them from functioning properly.
“I discovered that the gene mutation that causes this condition accelerates cell division, which contributes to fibrosis in the affected individuals and is also associated with cancer progression,” says Gumede.
Further, according to Gumede’s Principal Investigator at the CSIR – Dr Janine Scholefield, her ability to not only master but, explain highly technical and advanced science in isiZulu and Sesotho is what makes her so highly prized at the CSIR.
“She has mastered the craft of communicating her work fluently in isiZulu, Sesotho and English which is so important. With science and technology shaping our lives daily, it ought to be accessible to all, especially young people wanting to pursue a career in science.
Havinga young black woman who is at the top of her game and is able to make the work we do relatable is what will continue to inspire young girls entering the science field. It also makes her even more invaluable to the CSIR and the scientific community at large” adds Dr Scholefield.
With the skills that she has gained, she aims to use her PhD to further establish the stem cell platform for precision medicine, drug screening and, possibly, commercialisation in the CSIR.
She also intends to use the stem cell and genome engineering platforms to find new approaches to eliminate HIV reservoirs in infected persons and, hopefully, also contribute in finding key therapeutic strategies that resolve excessive scar formation in heart and lung conditions, which are a great burden of disease worldwide.