“My path into health sciences and in particular my field of study was influenced by my mother’s disease. She has rheumatoid arthritis, which is a chronic inflammatory autoimmune condition,” explains 32-year-old Dr Devapregasan Moodley, who is currently at Harvard University in the United States.
“I was vexed by the fact that the very system that evolved to protect the body could also destroy it in such a painful way. I was perturbed that we did not know enough about chronic inflammatory diseases that we could not alleviate the suffering of not only my mother, but also the multitude of other South Africans who have similarly debilitating inflammatory diseases. Equally perplexing was that in South Africa not much basic research was being conducted in this field.
“Our people suffered from these types of diseases but it was not a field in vogue. I believe that understanding the fundamental molecular nature of chronic inflammatory diseases will someday help improve the quality of life of many people, including my mother.”
Moodley struggled to get there: “My high school was poorly resourced – we learned mathematics and science on the weekends by organising classes with teachers in a school that was an hour away. I felt unprepared for university but struggled through. It was during my PhD that I realised that limitations existed only in my mind and if I applied myself and worked hard I could achieve anything.”
The KwaZulu-Natal native got his doctorate in medical biochemistry from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, with a focus on autoimmunity. He then spent a year mentoring postgraduate students and teaching at the university, before he was offered a postdoctoral research position at Harvard Medical School.
One project he is involved with is researching a new class of drugs for chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis. Another is studying the microbes in our gut.
He hopes to help to create a flourishing biotechnology industry on his return to South Africa, with the aim of helping patients. “Living a life beyond myself translates to searching for scientific truths that will ultimately serve the greater good.” — Mandi Smallhorne