School of Chemistry & Physics

Providing Radiation Protection Using Plants

Dr Richard Akomolafe, a lecturer at Crown-Hill University (CHU) in Ilorin, Nigeria received his PhD in Physics from UKZN for his research that will benefit the medical community as he investigated the use of plants to protect the human body from the harmful effects of ionising radiation.

Akomolafe completed his degree in Engineering Physics at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ife-Ife and his master’s at the University of Ibadan in Ibadan, Nigeria where he specialised in Radiation and Health Physics.

Taking study leave from CHU to begin his PhD in 2019, Akomolafe chose to study at UKZN after a university friend who completed his PhD at UKZN introduced him to the Institution.

Akomolafe said the prospect of receiving his degree from a reputable and influential university made UKZN attractive, especially given the calibre of its academic staff and research outputs, and its consistent performance in global rankings. He appreciated the University’s vision to be the Premier University of African Scholarship and its commitment to providing fee remission opportunities for international postgraduate students.

Securing funding for his studies through a grant from South Africa’s National Research Foundation and The World Academy of Sciences, Akomolafe set out to explore the radioprotective potential of ginger lily (Costus afer) and tropical chickweed (Drymaria cordata).

‘Radioprotectors are prophylactic agents given before radiation exposure to reduce the level of cellular or molecular damage; if effective, they give normal tissue a high level of protection, with little to no tumour cell protection and should be non-toxic to normal cells,’ he explained.

With a focus on natural products and the medicinal properties of plants having always figured in human development, from anecdotal folklore to exhaustive research, the beneficial properties of Costus afer (CAE) and Drymaria cordata (DC) were well-established, but little was known about their ability to protect cells against radiation-induced damage. Akomolafe evaluated these properties to investigate the plants’ potential as alternatives to synthetic drugs, particularly in cancer radiotherapy.

Despite the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which deprived Akomolafe of the chance to travel to two international conferences where he was invited to present his work, he was able to make the most of working from home and the limited time he had on campus to complete his research.

His work resulted in the publication of two papers in high-impact international journals, and contributed new knowledge about the radioprotective efficacy of these plants. Completing his PhD also conferred personal benefits, developing his analytical skills and ability to work independently.

‘Richard has worked tirelessly on his PhD,’ said supervisor Professor Naven Chetty. ‘He has been an exemplary student with a pleasing demeanour and he has a very promising future.’

Akomolafe thanked Chetty for his support and guidance during his research, and his wife Mrs Ibukunoluwa Akomolafe for her love, commitment and sacrifice throughout his academic pursuits. He also thanked the management and staff of the Department of Radiotherapy and Oncology at Grey’s Hospital in Pietermaritzburg for providing the irradiation facility, particularly Mr Nipho Mdletshe for his assistance with the radiation dosimetry and other technical support.

Akomolafe expressed gratitude to God for the success of his research and for his dream becoming a reality. He said his time at UKZN had been a memorable and enjoyable one, and had contributed to his academic development.

Words:Christine Cuénod