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SA is alive with innovation

Professor Ncoza Dlova.
Professor Ncoza Dlova.

Since the dawn of democracy South Africans have been making strides in the scientific, engineering and medical fields.

Professor Ncoza Dlova is one of the trailblazers in dermatology after she announced the discovery of a new gene mutation, a major contributory factor in the cause of permanent hair loss among women of African descent.

Dlova, who made the announcement last month, said this would not have been possible during apartheid due to a lack of opportunities for Africans to specialise in dermatology. The internationally renowned dermatologist collaborated with scientists in the US and Israel to discover the root cause of central centrifugal cicatricial alopecia (CCCA), one of the most common causes of scarring alopecia among African women.

"This discovery is a first in the world, and it followed links to our earlier publication of 2013 in which we reported for the first time a familial association in a cluster of black South African families with CCCA. We have been following the 15 families for five years, and seven years later a gene mutation has been identified. This has huge implications on early diagnosis, prevention and possible future targeted therapy for CCCA," she said.

Dlova pursued a career in dermatology after realising that there was a shortage of dermatologists in the country.

"It's very exciting, for us to be able to do research in areas that we know are challenging in our own population. Trying to find solutions and answers to our own problems is validating and empowering.

"Focusing our research on relevant areas is also important for us. We should be the ones who are finding solutions for our problems," she said.

She said dermatology is one of the most transformed medical disciplines in the country.

"I think the future is bright. We have seven black dermatology heads of department out of the nine medical schools in South Africa.

"Dermatology is one of the most transformed disciplines in South Africa in terms of registrar intake and leadership positions in the discipline.

"The president of the College of Dermatology is black. There are five professors in the nine medical schools with PhDs in dermatology, and four out of them are African," Dlova said.

Other medical strides that have put South Africa on the map recently include an intentional liver transplant from an HIV-positive mother to her HIV-negative child. More than a year after the transplant occurred there has been no detection of HIV in the child.

Dr Francesca Conradie, an HIV clinician from the Wits Donald Gordon medical centre and one of the experts involved in the HIV liver transplant case said this would not have been possible 25 years ago.

"HIV has moved from being a fatal illness to a manageable disease. Life expectancy is the same as someone who is negative, in fact life expectancy of people with HIV can be longer because they frequently get medical assistance," she said.

Though she said they are not able to say whether the child will eventually show signs of HIV, medicine has become so advanced that they were willing to do the procedure with the knowledge that if the child became HIV positive, it would not a death sentence.

Other South African innovations post-apartheid include that of Professor Mashudu Tshifularo from the University of Pretoria. He was the first person in the world to transplant the hammer, anvil, stirrup and the ossicles, which make up the middle ear, using 3D-printed technology. The development of the Square Kilometre Array, which will be the biggest radio telescope the world has ever built, located in the Northern Cape and the world's first digital laser from the CSIR are other innovations that have set South Africa apart.

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