Searching for a treatment to fight terminal diseases
Terminal diseases like Alzheimers Disease (AD) is one of the main causes of global mortalities, particularly among the elderly. Substantial amounts of money and resources are being invested in the continued search for treatment of this killer disease. Dr Monique Bignoux, a female scientific leader in cellular and molecular biology, is making a meaningful contribution towards finding effective therapeutic interventions.
Dr Bignoux, Molecular biologist
Dr Bignoux says her passion for the sciences dates back to Grade 11 in school. Her dream was to become a molecular biologist after being exposed to genetics. Since then, she made it her personal mission to pursue this field of study, earning a doctorate. Today, Dr Bignoux is a post-doctoral fellow at the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology (SBCB) at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), thanks to the National Research Foundation (NRF) which funded her studies from a Master’s degree to her current post-doctoral studies.
After completing her matric at Fairmont High School in the Western Cape, she relocated to Gauteng to study at Wits, renowned for its SMCB where she stayed on to receive her BSc and from there, to her doctoral degree. After successfully completing her honours degree in genetics, she could not find the necessary funding to study for her MSc project. She then made the transition from genetics to biochemistry and cell biology which exposed her to a different and interesting side of molecular biology.
Although the change enabled her to pursue a PhD project, she hit a financial snag. “This brought me to investigate ways to target several hallmarks of cancer. Although it was still very much in line with my love of cellular biology and biochemistry, it didn’t capture me in the same way that studying AD did,” says Dr Bignoux. She then decided to pursue her current post-doctoral project studying neurodegenerative diseases.
Based at the Cell Biology and Signalling Research Lab at Wits University, Dr Bignoux’s focus is on investigating the link between metabolic disorders and AD. She says that at the moment there is limited information available, giving her an opportunity to work on the first study using samples from the unique and diverse South African population. “We have thus far identified several key pathways and a key molecular target involved in AD progression and are actively identifying compounds to target these pathways using a combination of in silico and in vitro models,” explained Dr Bignoux.
Identifying possible causes
Highlighting the significance of her current research, Dr Bignoux says there is no current cure for AD and the existing research on the neuropathological hallmarks of this disease has not yielded much. Research needs to be re-directed, she says, to investigate and identify possible causes, rather than aiming to treat the symptoms. “Therefore, rather than looking into the late-stage hallmarks, such as amyloid plaques and tau tangles, we need to delve deep into the events occurring prior to these hallmarks forming,” says Dr Bignoux, adding that “our end goal is to identify specific pathways and proteins involved for potential biomarker identification and therefore, early diagnosis”.
Exploiting available opportunities
Dr Bignoux attributes her successful academic trajectory to her current supervisor, Dr van der Merwe. She says giving priority to placement of females from disadvantaged backgrounds is another critical element which contributed to her academic success. She says young girls interested in STEM-related careers should make use of existing opportunities within the field. She says things are changing and there is a lot of support and advocacy for girls and women in STEM across all academic institutions across the country.
“We currently have an all-female group of students from diverse backgrounds and in various stages of completing their postgraduate degrees. It gives me great pride to support them in their academic endeavours. I have much hope for the future of women in STEM,” concludes Dr Bignoux.