Why you should care
Because one day we could use his research to generate our own tissue and organs.
I follow Kevin Dzobo to the cafeteria at the Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine at the University of Cape Town, where his young son, Kevin Jr., sits absorbed in his tablet. They both seem eager to get on with their Saturday, yet the stem cell researcher patiently indulges my questions about his work in regenerative medicine. Dzobo, one of 16 emergent African scientists to be awarded the prestigious Next Einstein Forum fellowship for 2017–19, is chipping away at potentially groundbreaking medical research that could one day give humans what the humble salamander already has: the ability to regenerate their own tissue and organs.
Dzobo, 42, detours from discussing the details of his work to mention the nearby Groote Schuur Hospital — the site, in 1967, of a stunning advancement in human medicine when Dr. Christiaan Barnard performed the world’s first human-to-human heart transplant. Yet barriers to organ transplantation remain, says Dzobo, like locating a donor or a match. “What we’re trying to do is come up with ways to find this endless supply of organs and tissue,” explains the senior research scientist with the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology and lecturer at UCT’s Department of Integrative Biomedical Sciences.
In collaboration with the University of Pretoria, Dzobo is leading efforts to develop a patch made with stem cells that could repair damaged tissue. Stem cells were the obvious choice, he says matter-of-factly, because they can “differentiate into any direction that you want.” Meaning adult stem cells can be used, say, to make healthy new skin cells for burn victims or new cartilage for an injured knee. And unlike controversial embryonic stem cells, Dzobo says adult cells can be sourced from a person’s own body: “They are found everywhere: bone marrow, adipose tissue, the umbilical cord.” Fat removed during liposuction? A veritable treasure trove.
The stem cell patch would be generally affordable … and cut the healing time in half.
For Dzobo, this undertaking is about more than science: It’s a social justice issue, he says. In South Africa, many people live in informal housing stitched together with cheap materials that are easily ignited by open cookstoves, causing sweeping fires and severe burns. He sees a future in which medical practitioners could source stem cells from extra tummy fat and add them to a patch cultivated in a lab with fibroblasts — the cells that help form the structural framework of animal tissue and contribute to wound healing. After a month applying the patch to the burn or other wound, and administering drugs to stave off infection, he says, “the scar would disappear and you’d have perfect skin.” What’s more — and here Dzobo is visibly restraining his excitement — the stem cell patch would be generally affordable (because of how the stem cells would be sourced) and cut the healing time in half.
Setting aside the issue of whether — as UCT geneticist Collet Dandara puts it — bad actors could subvert stem cell technology to clone someone like Donald Trump, the patch could be susceptible to genetic mutations that would have to be carefully monitored. “Sometimes,” Dandara says, “if there are … changes in the DNA of the stem cells, there is the possibility of producing what you are not intending to get. But it’s a very small possibility.”
Professor Michael Pepper, director of the Institute for Cellular and Molecular Medicine at the University of Pretoria, is more cautious in his assessment. Though he speaks highly of Dzobo’s work ethic and character, having collaborated with him for several years, he points out that the patch has been tested in a laboratory setting only. “One doesn’t see it in context,” he says. “The best way is to do in vivo work” — on an animal model, in other words. Still, Pepper is convinced that his colleague, noted for “his drive and his commitment to the project,” has the pluck to “get it done.”
From what the married father of two tells me, this is exactly the kind of man his father — soon to be inaugurated chief of Zimunya village in Mutare, Zimbabwe — raised him to be. Though Kevin and his nine younger siblings “grew up basically herding cattle,” he says his father prioritized education and expected his firstborn to set a good example. “I was never allowed by my daddy to be second to anyone,” he recalls. Kevin’s mother, a businesswoman who ran a small kiosk, gave him four choices: become a pilot, an engineer, a medical doctor or a scientist. After high school in Mutare, he graduated with honors in biochemistry from the University of Zimbabwe. He then worked in the private sector in a pathology lab before winning a scholarship to a Master of Science program in molecular and cell biology at UCT, where he later completed his Ph.D. in medical biochemistry.
Today Dzobo is every inch the idealistic scientist, determined to produce research “that is relevant to society,” he says — starting with pushing the boundaries of regenerative medicine. He and his team are looking to partner with industry to accelerate their research and potentially deliver the stem cell patch to market. Looking even further ahead, he predicts it will eventually be possible to use stem cells to regenerate entire organs. The quixotic musings of a young scientist? Perhaps, but wasn’t the same said about being able to transplant a human heart?