Tackling three big killers


By Lelethu Tonisi

After HIV/AIDS, cardiovascular diseases (CVD) are the second cause of death. According to Professor Resia Pretorius, head of physiological sciences at Stellenbosch University, one out of six people die from heart disease and stroke in South Africa – about 215 people every day.

In Why do so many of die from blood clots?, the title of her Scifest lecture this week, Pretorius said that Type 2 diabetes, stroke, and heart disease are prevalent all over the world and account for 31% of deaths globally.

Environmental, lifestyle and genetic factors all work together to increase the likelihood of CVD and most of the blame goes to what we eat and drink, and social habits. Smokers are prone to CVD: with a single puff they expose themselves to “quintillions of different types of toxins” entering their blood system.

The “golden thread” linking these predisposing factors is studied through a simple blood test. Environment and lifestyle co-operate with genetic predispositions to lead to systematic low-grade chronic inflammation. This opens the door to unregulated inflammatory molecules causing abnormal clot formation (the blood becomes sticky). In Type 2 diabetes, overstimulated blood platelets clump together and sit next to cholesterol in the lining of veins and arteries.

The Stellenbosch physiological department is interested in the mechanics of the cells and looks at relationships between molecular binding areas, and what happens to proteins in membranes using different technologies. Flow cytometry quantitatively analyses cells and cell systems. Confocal microscopes look at what happens to the blood plasma where the clotting happens and protein structures. In systemic inflammation, the protein fibres change and become amyloidogenic (produce amyloids which cause Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease), and a thromboelastograph measures how fast the clot forms and breaks down.

The physiological research group in Stellenbosch discovered that there is a possibility of novel mopping agents to block the clotting in the blood, which will have an influence on diseases but, first they have to trace them. They are therefore working closely with their university’s engineering department to find and make new, cheap and easy technology that individuals at home can also use to track  these factors and take responsibility for their own livelihoods.

Pretorius also outlined the digital innovations contributing towards combating CVD:

  • First wave (around 2000) – consultations became remote, devices became more portable, Google.
  • Second wave (around 2010) – started looking at electronic health records e.g. Apple watch
  • Third wave (Now) – empowering the consumer, saving lives by tracking diseases right here and right now by looking at inflammatory profiles and markers in the person’s blood but with a device. Using big data analysis through a nanobiosensor to detect amyloid proteins via an app.


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