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Change the world

18/04/2024

From a young age the first three Master’s graduates in the Department of Human Physiology at Nelson Mandela University have been fascinated about the human body, how it functions and how to heal it.

 

From left, Supervisor Professor Gill Dealtry, Shiraz Ackerdien, Ashleigh Jacobs and supervisor Dr Chris Ajonijebu. Susan Botha at her Honours graduation, who is in Prague and could not attend her master’s graduation ceremony.

The three, Shiraz Ackerdien, Ashleigh Jacobs and Susan Botha are all from Gqeberha and received their Master’s at the autumn 2024 graduation. Their research focused on neuroinflammatory diseases (caused by immune system disorders) and breast cancer.

“Human physiology has interested me since high school,” says Shiraz Ackerdien, who graduated cum laude. “The miracle of the human body and what affects it inspired me to increase my knowledge and understanding. The more I have learnt, the more my love of learning about the body has grown.”

She explains that inflammation of the central nervous system is found in many neurodegenerative diseases (when nerve cells in the brain or nervous system lose function or die), including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis. However, neuroinflammation (the brain’s immune response) is also a protective mechanism, important for healthy brain function.

“Microglial cells (cells in the brain and central nervous system) are the first immune system cells to respond, switching between an inflammatory state and non-inflammatory state as part of a healing response as well as for brain health maintenance,” says Shiraz.

Her study investigated how specific molecules orchestrate the switch in microglial cell response to control neuroinflammation, neural protection and normal function. Her findings indicate a role for two molecules in particular – IL-4 and IL-13 - in enabling the microglial response switch and this provides insight into the alleviation of neuroinflammation, which may lead to new treatments for neurodegenerative diseases.

Shiraz says getting her Master’s “is a huge sense of accomplishment”. She is currently teaching at her former high school, Pearson, as she also has a teaching qualification. “For now, I’m leaving my future wide open. I really enjoy research in a clinical setting and the end goal will be to achieve my PhD.”

Ashleigh Jacobs who also graduated cum laude says: “Human physiology has always interested me; how the body works and how it responds to infectious diseases. This has taken me all the way to my Master’s and the study of neurodegenerative conditions and how to address these.”

She explains that neurodegenerative conditions characterised by mood disorders, cognitive decline and psychiatric disturbances often result from neuroinflammation triggered by immune responses to bacterial or parasitic infections, such as Human African Trypanosomiasis, transmitted to humans by tsetse fly bites. Tsetse flies are found in rural Africa.

“Microglia (cells in the brain and central nervous system) play a crucial role in the cellular processes involved in restoring neural or nervous system health following inflammation,” she explains.

“My study set out to evaluate the potential neuroprotective effects of Iloprost (a medication used to improve blood flow) on neuroinflammatory responses in cultures of microglial cells exposed to lipopolysaccharide (LPS), a bacterial molecule known to trigger inflammation, and in the brains of mice infected with Trypanosomiasis.”

The results of her research show Iloprost’s promising role in addressing the excessive activation of the inflammatory response in Human African Trypanosomiasis and other neurodegenerative diseases.

Ashleigh is now doing an internship at laboratory equipment supplier Lasec’s head office in Cape Town. “I want to get industry experience before doing my PhD,” she says.

For Susan Botha’s Master’s she decided to focus on breast cancer. “It constitutes 23% of all cancers in South African women, and is a major problem worldwide,” she says. “We use pharmaceuticals to combat cancer, but we also know that natural plants have anticancer properties and I wanted to investigate this.”

Her study focused on the effect of Nigella sativa extracts (black seed oil), thymoquinone (the main active ingredient of black seed oil) and curcumin, individually and in combination, on reducing the growth of breast cancer cells. The plant extracts are known to possess anti-cancer, anti-metastatic, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-properties.

Curcumin, which is indigenous to Asia, is a compound in the root of the turmeric plant that gives it its bright yellow colour. Since ancient times it has been used in cooking, ayurvedic and other forms of traditional medicine in China and India.

Nigella Sativa is indigenous to Western Asia and the Mediterranean has been used by healers since ancient times and is the focus of research in recent times.

She found that the combination of curcumin with Nigella sativa and thymoquinone, have promising benefits against breast cancer and warrant further investigation.

Susan is currently living in Prague where she moved a year ago with her husband Cobus Schutte. They are both working in IT for Dimension Data, part of the NTT Group. Schutte has worked for the company for ten years, initially in South Africa, and is also a Nelson Mandela graduate, in IT.

All three thanked their physiology supervisors at Nelson Mandela University, Associate Professor Hajierah Davids, Dr Chris Ajonijebu and Associate Professor Gill Dealtry. In their words “It was an honour to work with them, they gave us guidance and no matter the time and problem they would come to the lab to assist us and make sure our research went well. We are deeply grateful to them.”

“We are very proud of them and the achievement of having our first MSc Physiology graduates,” says Professor Hajierah Davids, the Head of the Department of Human Physiology, which was established in November 2018. Prior to this human physiology was part of the Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology.

“All three completed their BSc, BSc Honours and MSc in Physiology with us. They worked through the COVID-19 pandemic to undertake laboratory studies that were completed post-pandemic when regular laboratory work could be undertaken. Their research and dissertations are of a high standard and their achievement is a reflection of the collective staff effort in cultivating excellence within the Department.”

For all your graduation content across your social media platforms, please use #MandelaUniGrad24. We would love to collate, share and celebrate this amazing achievement with you on official University platforms. 

Contact information
Mrs Debbie Derry
Deputy Director: Communication
Tel: 041 504 3057
debbie.derry@mandela.ac.za