Biophotonics makes health monitoring
with Patience Mthunzi-Kufa
OSA: How did you get interested in
lasers and optics?
Patience Mthunzi-Kufa: I am quite
inquisitive, and I like to learn about
new things. I came to the National
Laser Centre (NLC) at the Council
for Scientific and Industrial Research
(CSIR) after I finished my master’s
degree in medical biochemistry. I had
learned many things about biology,
but my physics was very poor, and
I wanted a new challenge and was
trying to decide in what field to pursue a PhD. All I knew about lasers
was what the acronym meant, but I
started learning about them. Then I
discovered biophotonics, where you
use lasers in medical applications,
and decided that was the perfect
match for me.
OSA: What led you to work on laser
PMK: A year after I started working
here in 2004, I got an opportunity to
go to conferences abroad. At an optics
meeting in San Diego, CA, I saw videos
of laser tweezers manipulating biological entities like organelles in living cells.
Laser tweezers were quite new in 2005
and it was such an exciting field that I
wanted to have my hands in it, so I applied to the University of St. Andrews.
I did my PhD there, learning how to
make optical tweezers and to use them
in biophotonic research.
One thing I am working on is using
laser tweezers to improve delivery of
anti-HIV medicines into the body.
Right now it is at the research stage, working
on mammalian cells growing in Petri dishes.
Eventually, we want to design a tool that looks
and feels like an endoscope, but uses laser tweezers to deliver drugs to infected sites in the
body—first in animals and later in humans.
The instrument would include optical fibers to
deliver the laser light, perhaps a separate tube to
deliver the drug, and a camera for diagnostics.
Now, patients have to swallow drugs, which
get into the blood stream and go through the
entire body, where they can cause serious side
effects. Laser tweezers and fiber optics could
deliver drugs just to the infected organs.
This technique could also treat cancerous
tumors, and may have more uses in cancer therapy because tumors are easily viewed. Fluorescent
dyes could color the tumors so they stand out
more clearly. You could identify what cells to treat
by using specific wavelengths or dyes.
OSA: How else could this technology be used?
PMK: We are trying to develop biophotonic in-
struments that can be used in rural areas where
there is no electricity or clean water. This will
bring the service closer to the people—therefore,
patients won’t have to travel long distances to
reach clinics. We would like to develop point-
of-care diagnostics and treatments for HIV and
other diseases such as malaria or tuberculosis
for use in patients’ homes or communities. That
way, their disease could be diagnosed early enough to save their lives, and
doctors could monitor their conditions remotely.
The World Health Organization is pushing such tools in a program called
ASSURED, which is short for affordable, sensitive, specific, user-friendly, rapid
and robust, equipment-free, and deliverable to end user. We are trying to combine our photonics research with our biological experience to develop portable
laser tools that can diagnose disease by probing cells. That could have a lot of
impact in places with limited resources.
PATIENCE MTHUNZI-KUFA is the rsearch group
leader and principal
investigator of the biophotonics
research group at the National
Laser Centre (NLC) of the
Council for Scientific and
Industrial Research (CSIR;
Pretoria, South Africa). She
earned her PhD in physics
from the University of St.
Andrews in Scotland in 2010 for
work on optical tweezers. She
is a TED Fellow in the class of
2015, was co-chair of the South
African Young Academy of
Science in 2014, and is a
member of The Optical Society.
She was also awarded the
national Order of Mapungubwe
in Bronze by the President of
South Africa, Jacob Zuma.
Mthunzi-Kufa was also named
as one of the ‘ 20 Youngest
Power Women in Africa 2012’
by Forbes Magazine.