Doctor with a big heart lives to save lives

Professor Bongani Mayosi Picture: Supplied
Professor Bongani Mayosi
Picture: Supplied

There is no mountain too high and no gene too small for an Eastern Cape-born doctor armed with the passion and drive to improve and save the lives of people living in Africa.

Born in Mthatha, Professor Bongani Mayosi was inspired by his father, also a medical doctor, to help others.

He started studying medicine, focusing on cardiology and all matters related to the heart.

Mayosi, 50, embarked on a medical degree at what is now the Nelson Mandela School of Medicine at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. It was there that he met his dermatologist wife, Nonhlanhla.

The pair made their way to Port Elizabeth in 1990, where they worked at the Livingstone Hospital before leaving for Cape Town.

He had been offered a position as specialist at St George’s Hospital in Port Elizabeth but decided not to take it up.

After a stint as a registrar in Cape Town in the mid-1990s, Mayosi took up a fellowship at Oxford University in the UK to complete a PhD – and it was there that his interest in cardiology and congenital heart disease flourished.

“I decided to embark on a research-focused career in the field of cardiology,” he said, adding that statistically heart disease was the second-biggest killer in South Africa.

Returning to South Africa in 2001, Mayosi assumed research, teaching, and clinical responsibilities in internal medicine and cardiology at the University of Cape Town and Groote Schuur Hospital.

In 2006, at the age of 38, Mayosi became the first black person to be made professor and head of the Department of Medicine at Groote Schuur Hospital and the University of Cape Town.

“We work where angels fear to tread,” he said of the type of research he and his colleagues tackle.

Earlier this month, Mayosi and a team of global experts discovered and identified a gene which could lead to early death in youngsters and athletes.

“This is only the beginning. The recognition [of the discovery] means we are still at base camp but with a licence to climb Everest,” he said..

Working through a global collaborative group, which included experts from Italy and Canada, Mayosi and his team were able to identify the gene CDH2 which, if mutated, causes Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricle Cardiomyopathy, a genetic disorder that predisposes young people to cardiac arrest.

Mayosi said after the discovery he hoped to save lives through prevention rather than cure.

“Next is to find a drug to combat [the mutated gene],” he said.

During his tenure at UCT Mayosi has supervised more than 20 PhD studies and has had more than 168 articles published in peer-reviewed journals.

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