PhD Study Investigates Food Contamination
‘I have feelings of relief, excitement and gratitude. It’s been a difficult journey but I am so grateful to all who were a part of it. I’m unsure of what the future holds for now, but I’d like to use what I’ve learnt to help others and make a positive impact - possibly through evidence-based policy and initiatives.’
This is what Dr Yashodani Pillay had to say upon obtaining her Doctoral degree of Philosophy in Health Sciences (Medical Biochemistry).
The 28-year-old completed her Honours, and now her PhD, in Medical Biochemistry with the School of Laboratory Medicine and Medical Sciences under the supervision of Professor Anil Chuturgoon.
Pillay says she had several challenges along her journey but the support she received from her team at the lab, her friends and family kept her going.
‘I had a very supportive team and we were constantly encouraged to push ourselves and the boundaries of our research. The student-supportive environment and guidance provided by Professor Anil Chuturgoon and his team at Medical Biochemistry allows his students to bring the best to their projects. It also awoke my passion for research and science,’ she said.
Pillay’s study looked at Patulin, a common mycotoxin contaminant of food (mainly apple products) linked to vital organ damage; with the highest risk of exposure among children and babies. Her study used in vitro techniques to study the effects of Patulin on the epigenome, inflammasome, redox homeostasis and metabolism.
This was the first study to identify possible epigenetic targets (with possible diagnostic/therapeutic implications) and show that Patulin-mediated organ damage may be a function of metabolic complications with a role in insulin resistance. Pillay’s current research focuses on mycotoxin contamination in food (which disproportionately affects developing countries where food transport and storage infrastructure is limited) as a possible etiological agent in non-communicable diseases (NCDs). NCDs (cancer, diabetes, heart disease) have risen rapidly in recent years; particularly among developing nations to become the leading cause of mortality. While current strategy to address NCDs focusses on healthy diets and lifestyle changes, research indicates food quality is also an important consideration.
Pillay has worked - in a volunteering and professional capacity - with different NGOs, government and international agencies in health, policy and education. This gave her a chance to use the skills acquired in her training for real life applications which has been rewarding. Pillay was also named in The Mail & Guardian’s Top 200 Young South Africans in Science and Technology for 2018.
‘I would like to thank my aunt, Ms Shamla Govender, and my uncle, Mr Nuglan Pillay. Without them and their continued support, I would not have completed this degree,’ she said.
Words: Lihle Sosibo