COVID-19 highlights need for early cancer diagnosis and treatment in Africa

As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, patients of chronic diseases like cancer have come under the spotlight as they are at higher risk of severe illness if infected by the virus. 

“Cancer and cancer treatment weakens the immune system, increasing the risk of complications from coronavirus infection,” says Dr. Pascaline Fonteh, a Future Africa fellow at the University of Pretoria and Senior Research Scientist and Research Coordinator at Wits University

“In recent years we have noticed an increased incidence of non-communicable diseases in African populations,” she says. “We are starting to see increases in pancreatic cancer and cancers in general, and this is a big challenge due to our limited resources.” 

Fonteh is looking at ways of identifying pancreatic cancer early, before it takes hold of the body, as well as screening potential drugs for treatment. She also works on monitoring immune responses in acute pancreatitis, which is an inflammation of the pancreas that predisposes patients to pancreatic cancer. 

Her aim is for doctors to easily differentiate between patients who have a mild form of acute pancreatitis and those who have a moderate to severe form. By so doing they can identify and treat them early before complications such as organ failure arise from the often deadly, severe form of acute pancreatitis.

Early cancer diagnosis and treatment could be key to putting patients on the front foot when facing a global pandemic like COVID-19, because a strong immune system is needed to fight the disease.

Fonteh’s work is already well-suited for the Future Africa platform of multidisciplinary research. As a biochemist herself, she collaborates with clinicians, including surgeons who work in hospitals, and are able to identify the patients she needs for her research. 

“Our research is translational,” says Fonteh. “We work with clinicians who understand the research methodology and are able to interpret some of the results to move findings from bench to bedside.”

She finds value in Future Africa programs such as the African Science Leadership Programme, which she says has uncovered the great potential of African scientists.

“In as much as we are in our small corners, supervising students and leading research groups, sometimes you just need a forum where you can showcase your work with like-minded people in a way that it has an impact in your immediate environment,” she says.

Fonteh hopes that one-day news will break to the effect of, “South African scientists stop pancreatic cancer in its tracks.” Such news would be welcomed by future patients facing a threat like the COVID-19 pandemic we face today.

Imagine this headline in 2030: “South African scientists stop  pancreatic cancer in its tracks.” What’s your #ImagineFutureAfrica headline?