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Advancing the frontiers of science

Posted on August 12, 2018

Dr Vinet Coetzee’s main research objective is to create workable health solutions for Africa that can be used in both hospitals and rural areas. Because access to adequate health facilities is often limited in Africa, she knows her approach has to be different. Using her expertise in various disciplines, she set out to find innovative ways to improve the health and well-being of Africa’s people.

As Principal Investigator of the Department of Genetics’ Facial Morphology Research Group at the University of Pretoria (UP), Dr Coetzee and her research team set out to develop fast, affordable and non-invasive methods to help doctors identify nutrient deficiencies, inborn conditions and high-impact diseases more accurately. They have successfully managed to train computer models to recognise the links between physical features and these deficiencies and conditions. Their 3D camera screening tool and other non-invasive devices will be able to provide this information rapidly, reducing the waiting time associated with laboratory test results.

Remarkably, these non-invasive devices might one day be able to detect a range of health indicators, from fat percentage, to whether a person’s diet is lacking in micro nutrients, to the cardiovascular health and immunity of a person. They will even be able to screen for certain congenital disorders, such as Down Syndrome, offering a huge benefit to the African healthcare system.

Dr Coetzee explains that genetic disorders such as Down Syndrome is often only diagnosed in babies when they are as old as eight months, which is already too late for some of the life-saving interventions they need. “The long-term aim of the project is to develop a facial screening tool that can help doctors identify a range of conditions more accurately. It will give doctors a risk estimate for various conditions to guide further testing. This tool will be especially helpful in situations where doctors have insufficient expertise in these conditions and inadequate funds for extensive testing.”

While commercial 3D cameras suited for this purpose are exorbitantly expensive, the Facial Morphology Research Group has built a 3D camera for one tenth of the price of the commercial systems currently used in some well-funded hospitals. They are also collaborating with Prof Tania Hanekom of UP’s School of Engineering to produce an even more affordable version. Dr Coetzee believes that if these devices can be introduced in all major hospitals across the country, it will make a huge impact on the lives of those in need.

Although analysing the face to learn more about a person’s health has been a large focus, she  has now also started looking at the palm of the hand to gain insight and has made great strides in the diagnosis of malaria. In collaboration with UP’s Institute for Sustainable Malaria Control, she has just filed a provisional patent for a device that can detect malaria by analysing the colour of the skin on the palm of the hand. Dr Coetzee has tested the device in Nigeria, where a large percentage of the population is grappling with malaria. The ability of the device to correctly identify children with malaria was between 94% and 95%. She says the device would be ideal to use at border posts, immigration camps and other areas where it is necessary to screen many people before follow-up tests are conducted.

While still a young researcher, she is being recognised internationally for her innovative research and contribution to advancing the frontiers of science. She was recently named a Young Scientist by the World Economic Forum. Young scientists from across the world, from a wide range of disciplines making an impact are considered for this honour. The  Forum ultimately names those who have shown their commitment to public service and who actively play a transformational role in integrating scientific knowledge into society for the public good.

Dr Coetzee couldn’t be a more perfect fit. She will be attending the World Economic Forum Young Scientists’ New Champions 2018 Annual Meeting in China later this year, where she will engage with industry leaders, country leaders and some of the world’s most influential academics. She will also be able to explore the influence of new business models, industries and technologies, which will all contribute towards the achievement of her main objective – to create workable health solutions for Africa that can be used in hospitals and rural areas.

Dr Coetzee was also selected as a Next Einstein Fellow for 2017–2019 for her research into non-invasive measures in health care. The Next Einstein Forum (NEF) is an initiative of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences that aims to create a platform that connects science, society and policy in Africa with the rest of the world. The goal of the NEF is to use science for human development globally. NEF fellows are regarded as some the top scientists in Africa under the age of 42. With this fellowship, Dr Coetzee hopes not only to widen her collaboration networks across Africa, but also to move science forward in Africa in an innovative way, encouraging young scientists to think out the box to improve the health of  people on the continent.

- Author Louise de Bruin

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