The National Science Week which was held at Wits ended with a bang.

A Wits PhD graduate has won the Wits Science Slam, held from July 29 to August 2, for his innovative preliminary treatment of an aggressive form of breast cancer.

Dr Sourav Saha presented his research to grade 10 and 11 pupils visiting Wits University to partake in National Science Week (NSW). The pupils also served as adjudicators of the competition, held over the course of the week.

The competition was open to all postgraduate students and Saha, a postdoctoral fellow, took first place, followed by an honours and PhD student in second and third place respectively.

Together with his supervisor, Prof Mandeep Kaur, Saha developed a treatment for the type of breast cancer called Triple Negative Breast Cancer (TNBC).

“TNBC is a type of cancer where all three receptors [known to fuel the growth of cancer cells], oestrogen, progesterone and HER-2, are absent. It is very rare and currently there is no treatment other than surgery or chemotherapy, which have massive side effects,” Saha told Wits Vuvuzela.

“The cancer is very aggressive. It has a propensity to spread and that is why there is no treatment yet. The tumours grow very quickly, so it’s difficult to tame.”

Saha and Kaur injected a compound provisionally called KS01 into mice with cancer. The compound depletes cholesterol, a key component of cancer cell membranes, and shrinks the tumour mass.

Experimentation with the new treatment was conducted on mice, which featured in Saha’s presentation. His presentation was simple and easy to understand, and this was why he won, he said.

“I added some humour because there were kids involved and I had pictures of myself running after the mice and talking to them, too. It was very concise and crystal clear,” he said.

The postdoctoral fellow said initiatives such as National Science Week “are a good way to interact with students. I thought they were first-year students because they were asking quite challenging questions.”

Kaur said what she liked about the competition was that “the students were the judges and they came with a clean heart without any bias. If they chose Dr Saha, it is because they could understand what he was saying and were impressed by him.”

Dr Ian Mckay, coordinator of National Science Week at Wits, said that through Science Slam “the postgrads learn so much on how to bring their topics down to the schoolchildren’s levels, so they can discuss it with the kids and teachers.

“The teachers are fascinated and the kids are stimulated and they ask all these deep questions. You can see they are really intrigued by what is going on,” he said.

Mckay told Saha he spoke from the heart during his presentation.

“There were two different ways competitors presented their research. There were those who portrayed what they were doing as a sexy, young and vibrant field of study,” Mckay said. “Then there were the others, who explained very carefully and conscientiously why what they were doing was making a difference to society. Dr Saha was the second one.”

“There is a lot of talent in South Africa. We need to invest more in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) programmes and attract young people to them. Initiatives like the Science Slam are a good step in this direction,” Kaur said.

FEATURED IMAGE: Dr Sourav Saha (left) took first place at the Wits Science Slam. Photo: Sanele Msiza