School of Life Sciences

Fighting Dread Diseases Inspires this Health and Wellbeing Warrior

MSc Biochemistry summa cum laude graduate, Mr Keelan Jagaran is passionate about science and it shows in his outstanding academic achievements.

After matriculating from Raisethorpe Secondary School in Pietermaritzburg, Jagaran completed a BSc degree, majoring in Biological Sciences and Genetics. ‘UKZN has always been a highly esteemed university where I knew I would get a high-calibre education,’ he said.

Jagaran did his BSc Honours graduating cum laude, before going on to do even better with his MSc degree for which his dissertation was titled: Targeted Gene Delivery to Cervical Cancer Cells in vitro using Green Synthesized Copper Oxide Nanoparticles.

Jagaran was inspired by lectures on cancer biochemistry during his undergraduate studies. ‘Professor Mogie Singh’s lectures developed a great interest in me to fight dread diseases and add to science and medicine in this regard,’ he said.

‘Following the completion of my honours, I looked in depth at the research that Prof Singh conducts in her laboratory and this really caught my attention. It was something which is novel and has a great impact. It was an opportunity that I could not pass up.’

Jagaran’s research has given him the opportunity to impact people’s lives positively by studying the mechanisms through which certain diseases progress. ‘My research always had me thinking of possible ways in which I could contribute to science to aid in helping these people,’ he said.

In his research, Jagaran focused on an alternative treatment for cervical cancer. ‘Cervical cancer is a global health problem and the fourth most frequent cancer affecting women, with 90% of the related deaths occurring in low-to-middle-income countries, predominantly due to the high-cost factor related to treatment.’

His research employed green synthesised nanoparticles for the delivery of a gene to cervical cancer cells. This was designed to overcome the many side effects faced by traditional treatment options such as chemotherapy. The study was highly specific to the cervical cancer cells compared to normal cells suggesting a potential safe strategy with low costs and minimal side effects.

‘This research has a strong impact on society as it affects cancer research and the principles behind it can be used to treat any other form of cancer as well,’ he said. ‘The study portrayed the biological synthesis of nanoparticles which makes it a safer, cheaper and possibly a more effective option. As a result, this alternative treatment can help individuals in the lower income brackets and thus reduce the mortality rate of patients with cervical cancer.’

Singh, who supervised Jagaran’s research, described him as an exceptional student who knew what he wanted to do and started reading literature for his MSc when he was still completing his honours. ‘This is the reason he was able to start his laboratory research immediately,’ she said. ‘Lockdown was a minor setback for him and upon return to campus, he worked tirelessly to complete his study and fortunately was able to submit his thesis in January.’

‘Keelan wrote up as he went along, making it easier to finalise his work, although this did keep me busy as well,’ added Singh.

During lockdown, Jagaran drafted a manuscript relating his nanoparticles to COVID-19 research titled: Nanomedicine for COVID-19: Potential for Copper Nanoparticles, which is being presented virtually this month at the annual congress of the American Society of Gene and Cell Therapy.

‘I am proud of Keelan’s achievements thus far and hope he takes this momentum forward into his PhD, which he is currently registered for,’ said Singh.

Jagaran believes in the ‘work hard, play hard’ strategy. He enjoys being in nature, engaging in activities such as hiking, sitting outside with family or beach days, all while enjoying good music.

‘I believe that in life, imperfection is a fundamental aspect and as a result we should openly learn from others and what we read and what we go through, to be the best version of ourselves,’ said Jagaran.

He admitted that although he kept his cool, 2020 had been a very challenging year. Faced with a pandemic and having to adjust to the new normal was not easy. This did not stop him, however, from being a prize winner at the annual Postgraduate Research and Innovation Symposium (PRIS) hosted by UKZN’s College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science.

Keelan has jumped straight into his PhD work. The focus of his current scientific investigations is on nanomedicine to treat neurodegenerative disorders, focusing mainly on Parkinson’s disease.

Words: Samantha Ngcongo

Photograph: Supplied