Friday’s graduation ceremony (17 April 2015) at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University marked a historic moment for inter-university collaboration in South Africa.
This is when the new MSc degree in Nanoscience (Nanobiomedical Science) was awarded to the first NMMU student on the National Nanoscience Postgraduate Teaching and Training Platform (NNPTTP).
Lynn Cairncross, 24, of Gelvan Park in Port Elizabeth, received her degree after starting on the programme in 2012. Her research focused on investigating the localisation of peptide-gold nanoparticles in in-vitro (cells) and in-vivo (tissue) colorectal cancer model.
This NNPTTP is well-supported by the Department of Science and Technology, offering full scholarships. A further unique feature, and a first in South Africa, is that the same degree is awarded in three study fields of Science, namely in nanobiomedical sciences, nanochemistry and nanophysics.
For the first time in South Africa, four universities, namely; NMMU, the University of Johannesburg, the University of Free State and the University of the Western Cape are working in partnership to present the same inter-university postgraduate degree to students from all four institutions, with each institution enrolling their own students in the programme.
Lynn says colorectal cancer (CRC) is the third most common cancer and cause of related deaths worldwide. It is common for CRC to go undetected until significant symptoms develop. At this point, explains Lynn, the cancer has progressed into a late stage where the tumour has grown and the patient has a low rate of survival.
“This is a disappointing fact as colorectal tumours take years to develop and early diagnosis would have reduced the risk of death. Traditional diagnostic tools such as colonoscopy or faecal occult blood tests (FOBT) may improve survival rates. However, these methods lack insensitivity and specificity and are limited in relation to their cost, risk, and invasiveness,” says Lynn.
Lynn explains that previous studies have identified three peptides binding only to colorectal cancer cell lines. However, their localisation in an in vitro and in vivo colorectal cancer model has not been determined yet.
“The aim with my study was to clarify the binding and localisation of these three peptides functionalised to gold nanoparticles in colorectal cancer using the high resolution transmission electron microscopy (HRTEM) at NMMU.”
She says this is essential in gaining an understanding for future diagnostic or therapeutic based applications.
“This study provided insight into electron microscopy of biological materials and the optimisation of conditions for future nanobiomedical research. The research is looking at the early and specific detection of CRC.”
Lynn will pursue this research in her doctoral studies.
Lynn is working with other students from the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and a medical gastroenterologist, Dr Ernst Fredericks, who received his PhD in Biochemistry at NMMU last year.
Having always been interested in science, the St Thomas matriculant completed a BSc in Biochemistry and Microbiology, and then an honours degree in Biochemistry.
“I’ve always been passionate about Science; especially Life Sciences. This field developed my understanding of how the living system works and how certain processes go wrong resulting in diseases such as cancer,’’ she says.
After completing of her honours degree, this second of three daughters, wanted to enter the world of work, but heard of the NNPTTP from her supervisor Prof Saartjie Roux and decided to join the programme.
She did nine months of coursework at UWC and then spent 15 months on her research project. Lynn received a bursary for her doctoral studies from the National Research Foundation.
She encourages youngsters to follow a career in science if they are passionate about it.
“If you are hardworking and self-disciplined, you will make it far,” she says.
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