It's in the blood

Professor Resia Pretorius is the recipient of the TW Kambule-NSTF Award: Researcher through research and its outputs by an individual. (Photo: Mariki Uitenweerde EYEscape)

Professor Resia Pretorius is the recipient of the TW Kambule-NSTF Award: Researcher through research and its outputs by an individual. (Photo: Mariki Uitenweerde EYEscape)

There is a term that best defines the work done by someone who changes the way in which human beings interact with the world around them, or fundamentally shifts the way in which they approach diseases. That term is ‘groundbreaking’, and it can very easily be applied to the discoveries made by Professor Resia Pretorius.

A professor of physiology at Stellenbosch University, her work has not only garnered her international recognition and scientific fame, but it also has the potential to change lives and outcomes for patients vulnerable to type 2 diabetes, cancer, Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s Disease.

“I have been focused on the haematological system – including red blood cells, plasma proteins and platelets – for about 10 years now,” says Pretorius. “Our dormant bacterial/inflammation/blood link was made a few years ago, when two postgraduate students, Natasha Vermeulen and Janette Bester, worked on blood clotting and haematology of Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s Disease.

“We discovered the presence of bacteria in the blood samples we had taken. We initially thought we had contamination, so we then focused on working aseptically and took further tests. It was still the same results in these patients, but not in healthy, age-matched controls.”

The results intrigued Pretorius. She discussed her findings with a research collaborator, Professor Douglas Kell from The University of Manchester. A well-known systems biologist, Kell had previously worked on bacteria that lie dormant in natural situations (such as soil) and looked into why these bacteria can be activated by certain stimuli.

Together, Kell and Pretorius developed a bacterial dormancy model that suggested that if bacteria entered the body through a leaky gut or periodontitis or gingivitis, for example, these bacteria could lie dormant in the body and be activated by specific conditions at a later date.

“An important editorial followed in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, where Douglas Kell and me, together with international experts, discussed the importance of looking at a bacterial link in neuro-inflammatory diseases like Alzheimer’s Disease,” explains Pretorius. “We uncovered that the golden thread running through these diseases is inflammation and looked into how we can catch them early to prevent them from developing further.”

More innovations followed whereby Pretorius – together with Professor Willie Perold, Professor Wim de Villiers, Professor Anna-Mart Engelbrecht and Kell – patented a nanobiosensor for the early detection of cancer. She and Perold also have a platelet function nanobiosensor patent. A single drop of blood can now indicate if inflammatory conditions are stirring within a person’s bloodstream, long before it actually starts. Furthermore, disease progression may be monitored more easily and at a very low cost.  “A disease develops because of various factors, including genetic predisposition, so our innovations may not cure the disease. However, they may prevent it from developing further, especially if we can catch it earlier than we are catching it today,” says Pretorius.

Through the use of novel techniques, Pretorius’s research and unstoppable determination, and the evolution of understanding, it seems that medicine may be on the cusp of removing these diseases forever.

To date, Pretorius has filed six patents and her work has won her the 2011 African Union Kwame Nkrumah Scientific Award, as well as the department of science and technology’s 2017 Women in Science Runner-up Award. In addition, she has published articles in several journals and her research has featured in New Scientist.