Genes that dislike iron

Category J - The NRF-sponsored TW Kambule award for a distinguished young black female researcher in the past five to 10 years

Dr Monique Zaahl’s research in genetics has led to early detection and treatment for those at risk of disease conditions linked to iron overload in the body.

Zaahl was awarded the best Emerging Young Women Scientist by the department of science and technology in 2006.

Zaahl, a senior lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch, says: ‘People who eat large amounts of red meat tend to overload on iron.

“Then there are those who take nutritional supplements in the belief that one cannot overdo it. But we have seen a link between iron overload and a number of diseases.

“Hereditary haemochromatosis is the most common. We have identified the mutation causing iron overload specifically in the Indian population.”

Her research determines the role of genes in iron homeostasis in a range of disease conditions. These include primary iron overload, oesophageal cancer, multiple sclerosis and Porphyria Cutanea Tarda. The research involved patients from all the ethnic groups, in which diverse results have been recorded.

“The research findings are helpful in the case of oesophageal cancer, because this cancer is detected at a late stage. We now have preliminary results showing a direct contribution of iron to the development of oesophageal cancer. I believe links to other cancers are likely, and what we have seen shows ethnic differences in these mutations.”

Dr Zaahl’s research has further shown a link between iron overload and multiple sclerosis —- an area which she hopes to research in future.

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