School of Chemistry & Physics

UKZN staff member and PhD graduate in Chemistry, Dr Leigh Hunter.

Research Offers Novel Approach to Diagnosis and Treatment of Cancer

Mr Leigh Hunter – senior laboratory technician in the School of Chemistry and Physics – can now add the title “Doctor” to his name after graduating with a PhD degree in Chemistry.

Supervised by Professor Matthew Akerman, his thesis was titled: Derivatised Phenanthroline Transition Metal Chelates: Targeted Chemotherapeutic Agents.

Dr Hunter synthesised a range of novel compounds based on the transition of metal copper. ‘These metal-based compounds were designed to bind and cleave DNA in tumour cells, arresting cell growth.’

His metallodrugs have applications for both the treatment and diagnosis of cancer and of particular interest is the efficacy of these compounds against triple-negative breast cancer. His research offers a novel approach to the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

Hunter chose to pursue his PhD with UKZN as the research opportunities offered on the Pietermaritzburg campus Chemistry Department aligned with his interests and career goals.

‘In layman’s terms, my research involved the study of metals in medicine, specialising in anti-cancer applications,’ he explained. ‘The metal-based copper compounds I obtained showed promising results as potential anti-cancer agents against triple-negative breast cancer.’

Triple-negative breast cancer has a high mortality rate in South Africa owing to its resistance to most drugs on the market. Hunter’s research is significant as it has shown promising new metal-based drugs that could aid or replace the current resistant drugs.

Hunter, who supervises the Chemistry Department’s honours and X-ray labs as his fulltime job, particularly enjoyed the chemical techniques involved in his PhD research, which enabled him to develop new skill sets.

‘As a UKZN employee, I am extremely committed to the Institution and intend to continue developing myself to contribute to its overall vision and goals. I enjoy the technical side of research and would like to pursue this area to the best of my ability.’

He thanked Akerman for his excellent supervision and his parents for their continual support.

Hunter, who enjoys socialising over a friendly game of squash and who is also an enthusiastic amateur astronomer, believes strongly in the importance of mental health as the basis for successful studies.

‘I want to advocate for people to look after their mental health, especially those currently doing their PhDs. It is important to look after oneself and provide the best of you to the world. When it may seem like all is going wrong or not going to plan, remember that you are not alone in this journey, and by pushing forward, your goals ARE obtainable,’ added Hunter.

Words: Sally Frost

Photograph: Sethu Dlamini