Healing hearts and taking research beyond laboratories and scientific journals into communities affected by diseases is the number one priority for the University of Cape Town’s Prof Liesl Zühlke. The 51-year-old mother of two is the only black female professor of cardiology in SA and a National Research Foundation-rated scientist who has published more than 120 research papers in peer-reviewed journals in the past decade. Zühlke credits the late Prof Bongani Mayosi for developing her into an award-winning scientist who uses her passion and expertise to fight rheumatic heart disease (RHD), a preventable condition that kills thousands of children every year.
“With Bongani, there was always that sense that you must grow where you are planted.”Prof Liesl Zühlke
Reflecting on Mayosi’s legacy, which the university celebrated on what would have been his 53rd birthday last week, Zühlke vowed to carry the baton from the former dean of health sciences. “We owe it to him to take his vision further and beyond us as researchers,” she said. As part of honouring Mayosi, who died in July 2018, UCT launched an online bibliography containing all his research dating back to the late 1980s. The university also held a memorial lecture and announced plans to rename its health sciences library after Mayosi. Last week the university announced that associate professor Lionel Green-Thompson, dean of the school of medicine at Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University in Pretoria, would succeed Mayosi.
Zühlke worked alongside professors Ntobeko Ntusi, Mpiko Ntskhe and Mark Engel in the “Mayosi research group” and said it had been difficult to carry on without the man she regarded as her “academic father”. But it was important to her and her colleagues to “pick things up where Bongani left off in a way that will do him justice”. The four professors, all former Mayosi students, have now formed the Bongani Mayosi Research Collaborative to continue his vision for heart diseases linked to poverty in Africa. “With Bongani, there was always that sense that you must grow where you are planted. So we will continue with his vision and take the lessons from him to elevate what we can potentially do,” said Zühlke.
She hopes to continue with Mayosi’s approach of putting his patients first. “We never just did research in a blinkered approach. When you do the project, we always looked to see what else needed to be done, she said. “We actually almost embedded ourselves in the disease process in order to change the impact of the disease. He always asked what public advocacy that needs to be done, what talks you have to give, where you needed to go to teach.
HEALING HANDS Liesl Zühlke says patients are at the heart of the new Bongani Mayosi Research Collaborative's work. Image: UCT
“He taught us that whatever we do we must always think that patients are the most important, that the research is more than ourselves.” So important were his patients that Mayosi once asked Zühlke and fellow researchers to contact and invite almost 600 people who were part of his study “to have lunch with us and for us to explain in simple language what the study outcomes were and what it meant for them”.
Zühlke, who bagged three degrees during her 10-year tenure with Mayosi, said he pushed her beyond what she thought were her limits. “Bongani was a pusher but in a good way. He pushed you in loads of areas. For me I was not a researcher. I learned so much of my research style from him ... the writing, attention to detail, the work ethic. It’s a big change from being a clinician. So he changed me to what we now call a clinician-scientist,” she said.
WRIT LARGE The wall leading to UCT's health sciences library bears a tribute to Prof Bongani Mayosi. Image: J'Enine May/UCT
As part of her PhD research, one of the biggest heart disease studies in the world, Zühlke investigated clinical outcomes and mortality among 3,500 children and adults with rheumatic heart disease across 14 nations and 25 sites in Africa, Yemen and India. She found that patients with clinical rheumatic heart disease had high mortality and morbidity despite being young. Those in poorer countries had a poorer prognosis associated with advanced disease and low education.
Although it was a decade of hard work under Mayosi, Zühlke said it paid off when it led to the World Health Organisation adopting a resolution to launch a coordinated global response to rheumatic heart disease, which affects about 30 million people each year. “That was a landmark thing for us to have happened in 2018 ... it was a real testament to Prof Mayosi’s commitment and all the hard work,” she said.