Patience Mthunzi-Kufa

Women in STEM
Patience Mthunzi-Kufa

Specialty: Physics

Major Contributions:

Developed method using laser pulses for more efficient drug delivery

2012 Recipient of Order of Mapungubwe in Bronze

Named one of 20 Youngest Power Women in Africa

Image: TEDxSoweto (CC BY 2.0 DEED)

With a background in both biology and physics, Dr. Patience Mthunzi-Kufa [ma-tune-zee koo-fa] is poised to make big discoveries in the fields of biophotonics and disease eradication. Born in Soweto [so-way-too], South Africa she studied biology at Rand Afrikaans University earning B.Sc. and M.Sc. degrees after which she worked as a research assistant in the HIV Vaccine development unit at the National Institute of Communicable Diseases in Johannesburg. 

In October 2004 she began her employment with the National Laser Centre (NLC) in the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research but was inspired at a conference to learn about optical tweezers. Because there were no options to study biophotonics in South Africa she traveled to Scotland in 2006 she began her doctorate in physics at the University of Saint Andrews finishing four years later and becoming the first known person in South Africa to qualify for this degree.

As the head of Biophotonics at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, commonly known as CSIR, she is also the manager of the Photonics Centre, and a research group leader specializing in advancing point of care diagnostics. Part of her research involves using laser tweezers to attempt to separate diseased cells from healthy ones.  Invited to give a TED talk in 2015 she presented her research on using laser pulses to deliver medication to targeted diseased cells.  The technology employs a three headed tool that uses a camera to locate specific cells, the pulses of an optical laser to drill tiny holes in the cell, and a drug sprinkling head that would deliver the medication to that cell. It is her hope that this targeted system could someday eradicate HIV.

In April 2012, she was bestowed the Order of Mapungubwe [mah-pun-gub-wey] in Bronze, for her contribution in Biochemistry and Biophotonics locally and internationally. Presented to her by President J. G. Zuma she was the youngest recipient of such an honor.  Since 2005 she has authored or co-authored over 60 papers in her field, has secured funding to set up the Biophotonics facility at CSIR, and is leading a team working on creating a multi-screening tool that converts a smartphone into a spectrometer that can then detect illnesses in bodily fluid samples  – the technology is in the testing stages with hopes that it can help bridge the gap between patients in rural settings and state of the art diagnostics.

Written by Angela Goad



Turning a smartphone into a medical diagnostic tool

Patience Mthunzi (TED)

Forbes Magazine names CSIR’s Mthunzi as one of “Youngest Power Woman in Africa 2012”

Could we cure HIV with lasers? (TED)

See Also:

BioOptics World