Making a difference in the lives of others

Posted on August 31, 2018

The loss of both her parents to cardiovascular disease ignited Dr Alisa Phulukdaree’s interest in this area of research: she wanted to gain a better understanding of the underlying risk factors of heart disease.

While at university, Dr Phulukdaree found a great passion in asking the intricate research questions that the field of health science demanded. She obtained her PhD in Medical Biochemistry from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in 2013, which focused on the evaluation of genetic polymorphisms (variations) in South African males of Indian ethnicity with early-onset coronary artery disease. Her  post-doctoral studies focused on nano-particles, anti-cancer work, toxicology and patient studies.  

Since joining the University of Pretoria’s Department of Physiology in 2014, she has made a vast   contribution to the area of microRNA research. Dr Phulukdaree’s expert understanding of biochemistry and physiology is key to understanding the change in the genetic function that results in the symptoms and changes of cardiovascular disease. She is looking at the gene expression and microRNA of inflammation in the body, which is said to be closely linked to diseases related to the cardiovascular system. Her interest in understanding the cellular/molecular mechanisms of disease pathology shows how disease can be regulated and which potential targets can be identified.

Dr Phulukdaree explains that diseases such as Type 2 Diabetes, are an underlying risk factor for heart disease, together with factors such as hypertension and obesity. She studies the coagulation pathways, or the process of blood clotting, and the mechanisms behind these pathways, to target them in order to reduce the risk of thrombosis. “Type 2 Diabetes changes the amount of inflammation in your body, so if you have high levels of chronic inflammation in your body then you are at higher risk of thrombosis or blood clotting. The risk of heart attack is therefore higher,” she explains. By targeting these mechanisms in the pathways, Dr Phulukdaree hopes to reduce the risk of thrombosis and heart attacks.

Her work is going to become more applicable to the clinical setting, improving diagnostics. These biomedical technological advancements will provide patients with the necessary information to enable them to pick up any risk factors faster than before. She explains that by improving diagnostics (through these biomedical technological advancements), government and private hospitals should be able to detect risk factors at a much earlier stage, preventing the adverse effects of the disease in its advanced stage.

Dr Phulukdaree is excited at the prospect of forming a research group under her supervision at UP in the future, which can delve deeper into this field of research.

Her leadership traits and outstanding scientific talents are exemplified in her selection as a member and mentor of the Tuks Young Research Leader Programme, an initiative of Future Africa and UP. She is a member of the South African Young Academy of Science, which aims to develop scientific capacity in South Africa, through mentoring and role-modelling of future scientists; and to foster opportunities for interdisciplinary collaborations among young scientists.

She was also recently asked to be a mentor for the Africa Science Leadership Programme. In this programme, only 21 candidates out of more than 200 candidates from 13 African countries are selected. The Programme trains fellows in advanced leadership skills and empowers them to lead a new paradigm for African science.

Dr Phulukdaree’s other accolades include being made a fellow of the prestigious Next Einstein Forum, which is a programme that recognises Africa’s best young scientists.

What excites her most about all these opportunities is not just to grow her research, or to be able to collaborate with scientists locally and internationally, but the fact that she can inspire change and make an impact on the lives of others.


- Author Louise de Bruin

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