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Hard Science With A Soft Touch

Breast cancer awareness month is an annual campaign aimed at raising an awareness about the disease, but also celebrating the survivors and the many people who devote their lives to the diagnosis and treatment of the disease. One such dedicated person is Dr Charlot Vandevoorde who heads up the Radiobiology Laboratory at iThemba LABS in Cape Town.





The year 2020 has made us all acutely aware of our connectedness as a human race. Our awareness has allowed us to make better choices, which yielded better results even when it comes to fighting cancer.

iThemba LABS is a national research facility specialising in the utilisation of accelerated particle beams to probe the origins, structure and interaction of our material universe, but also to create radiopharmaceuticals for application in Nuclear Medicine. One of the many products developed is 18F-FDG – a radioisotope used in full-body-scans using a PET-CT-scanner to detect cancerous lesions.

Wait a minute! Doesn’t radiation cause cancer? How is it possible to use it to detect and even treat cancer? What exactly governs the interaction between radiation and our biological system?

Most of us tend to interchange the first two letters when we hear the word Nuclear, i.e., it becomes Unclear. We are aware of the devastation and destruction linked to the atomic bomb and accidents at nuclear power plants, but also know of many cases in which X-rays were used to diagnose an injury. So, there is clearly more to the radiation; possibly the type as well as the dosage. One of the many challenges linked to the use of radiation in our modern society is to constantly ensure that the benefits outweigh the risks.

Every year, millions of people depend on the use of radiation in medical examination to not only detect cancer, but also to treat and cure it through radiation therapy. The duality of radiation exposure and its effect on human health forms the core of Dr Charlot Vandevoorde’s research activities at iThemba LABS.


“I know it sounds odd, but the properties that make radiation dangerous are also the properties that can be exploited for medical applications. When radiation of high enough energy hits a cell, it creates breaks in the DNA. In the case of cancer cells, we apply radiation to obtain a high number of breaks in the DNA, in order to kill the cancer cells or slow their growth,” she explains.

“But radiation has the same effect on healthy cells, where the DNA breaks can eventually result in mutations and genomic instability, which in turn, could initiate the development of cancer. So, how do we deliver maximum dose to the cancer cells whilst minimising the impact on healthy cells?”

The answer: selective targeting. The radioisotope is attached to an organic molecule, which attacks a specific target on a cancer cell. Where the molecule goes, the isotope goes, too. The process to develop a new radiopharmaceutical is tedious as Dr Charlot and her team needs to understand the radiochemistry to produce and extract the isotope, fully understand the interaction with the biological cell through experimentation, and then pass pre-clinical and clinical trials.

“I am super excited to be part of the team at iThemba LABS that recently submitted a patent application, together with other South African partners, on a new radiopharmaceutical that will hopefully be used in the fight against cervical cancer in the future. While breast cancer remains the most common cancer in women worldwide, cervical cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related death in women in Sub-Saharan Africa.”




Dr Charlot’s research, however, is not limited to radioisotopes alone. The research infrastructure at iThemba LABS provides unique opportunities to study the effect of different types of radiation on human cells, which has applications for both radiation therapy as well as radiation protection. “One of our studies, specifically linked to breast cancer, investigates whether proton beams yield superior results when compared to conventional modalities available in radiation oncology practices. In addition, we are investigating several compounds that could potentially sensitise the cancer cells to radiation and others that could be used as countermeasures to protect the healthy cells.”

Robert John Meehan, a leading voice in the American education system, said: “Learning becomes relevant when we connect it with reality.” And Dr Charlot says she is privileged to be in a space where she can see the impact of her research activity. “It is often a lonely journey but knowing that I am in my own way contributing to building a healthier society, makes it worth the effort,” she continues.

iThemba LABS is a National Facility of the National Research Foundation in South Africa. It is Africa’s largest facility for particle and nuclear research as well as one of only a handful of facilities in the world producing radionuclides for commercial, research and medical applications.

Connect with iThemba LABS on Facebook: @iThembaLABSCape, Instagram: @iThembaLABS and Twitter: @iThembaLABSCape

Author: Dr Gillian Arendse, Manager: Communication and Stakeholder Relations at iThembaLABS