Raj Ramesar: genetic research and intervention

08 March 2016 | Story Natalie Simon. Photo Michael Hammond.

Professor Raj Ramesar, head of the Division of Human Grenetics and director of the UCT/MRC Human Genetics Research Unit, discovered a common genetic mutation linked to colorectal cancer in some of the most neglected communities in the Northern Cape of South Africa. In response he developed an intervention programme which successfully lowered mortality and morbidity in those communities.

Genetic predisposition to colorectal cancer is a terrifying prospect for people in even the wealthiest societies; for those living in underprivileged communities, it can be a death sentence. Thus, when Professor Raj Ramesar discovered a genetic mutation linked to colorectal cancer, common in some of South Africa’s most neglected communities, his immediate priority was to bring world-class medical intervention to those at risk.

Ramesar and his team developed an intervention programme that included genetic counselling and predictive genetic testing to identify individuals most likely to develop the cancer. This programme has been running for more than 20 years and successfully contributed to lowering mortality and morbidity in these communities. According to one study, life expectancy for those affected increased by 23 years as a result of the intervention.

Ramesar stresses the importance of genetics as a tool to reduce morbidity and mortality in Africa: "It is important not to let this tool “pass the continent by,” he says.

Winning the Alan Pifer Award, says Ramesar, deepened his appreciation of how important it is to ensure academic work tackles real-life problems to create useful instruments of social development. Ramesar believes that greater inter- and transdisciplinarity of research is key to developing these life saving interventions. He has put this into practice himself: in order to align his research questions with more effective discovery, innovation and intervention, Ramesar last year completed an executive master’s in business administration (MBA) programme at UCT’s Graduate School of Business.

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