Medical Biochemistry

The University of KwaZulu – Natal is committed to research that is relevant to our current context and which contributes meaningfully to the amelioration of the conditions affecting the communities that the University serves.

Prompted by growing concern regarding the high incidence of certain cancers presenting at local hospitals as well as the rapid decline in health of HIV/Aids sufferers from certain communities, Professor Anil Chuturgoon and his staff at the Mycotoxin Research Unit (MRU), based at the Doris Duke Medical Research Institute, Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine, University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban; have been involved in cutting edge research into the impact of chronic exposure of mycotoxins on the prevalence and severity of these diseases.

The Mycotoxin Research Unit (MRU), under the leadership of Professor Anil Chuturgoon, has state of the art research laboratories which are used for research and the training of medical scientists. The research focus is on human diseases resulting from the diet related to environmental mutagenesis and carcinogenesis, and HIV/AIDS. The laboratory has a modern cell culture facility, equipped with CO2 incubators, inverted microscopes and a new inverted fluorescent microscope. The Immunology laboratory has a new flow cytometer, which was acquired through private sponsorship. In addition, we have a modern pcr machine and an hplc instrument.

One of the key research areas relates to the link between diet and disease. The staple diet of rural South Africans is maize, a grain commonly infected with fungi and mycotoxins. Mycotoxins are poisons produced by fungi, which are common contaminants of other cereal grains as well. Many of these toxins are known mutagens, carcinogens and immunosuppressive agents. There is currently considerable data to support the view that the high incidence of disease in populations which consume maize as a staple can be directly attributed to the chronic exposure to these toxins.

By examining the mechanism of cell death or apoptosis, and the relationship of certain mycotoxins on the promotion or inhibition of apoptosis related to the cell cycle, the MRU, has shown that the mycotoxin, fumonisin B (produced by the Fusarium spp.) is an aetiological agent in oesophageal cancer in South Africa (cancer with the highest mortality rate amongst Black Africans). This is groundbreaking research which will impact on the management of the disease as well as promote better practices with regard to storage and preparation of certain staple foods. Other innovative research has revealed a positive correlation between mycotoxin consumption and immunosuppression, especially in HIV/AIDS patients.

The MRU, is a vibrant hub of innovative research activity, attracting high calibre students and staff. Many of these students have been recognised for their academic ability and research potential by the National Research Foundation (NRF).

The MRU has as its Mission the creation of an enabling environment for research and learning with a strong focus on mentoring and teamwork. This ethos extends to academic and technical staff. To this end, the MRU is a fertile ground for nurturing and developing new academics. Amongst the key academic staff are Rene Myburgh and Metse Serumula, who were appointed as promising young researchers and lecturers through the University’s Equity Acceleration Programme. The technical expertise is provided by Narisha Singh, herself a former student in the MRU.

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