Visit the South African Government Coronavirus Website for all official COVID-19 updates

Woman in SANBS leading innovation

Shining A Spotlight on Women Leading Research and Innovation at SANBS

At SANBS we pride ourselves in creating an enabling environment for the advancement of women occupying different roles in our organisation and leading from the front in terms of innovation.

SANBS has a stated policy of gender equality. In our senior management, there is equal representation of men and women, and those women play key roles in meeting our strategic objectives. However, throughout the organisation there are outstanding women doing incredible things.

These 7 women are behind some of our key research and innovation projects

While driving innovation in a blood service can be challenging. Dr Karin van den Berg’s role as Medical Director is to put donors and patients first, above productivity and cost-efficiency, while understanding the need for our products to be affordable if we are going to be trusted to save lives. Amongst other things, Karin is also involved in transfusion medicine training for clinicians both in South Africa and other sub-Saharan countries such as Kenya, Lesotho and Swaziland. 

Lebohang Lebogo, a technical support officer, is the first black woman to develop a drone-based programme which delivers blood products to hospitals in rural areas and collects samples for testing. This reduces the cost and time it takes to deliver blood. The programme is being piloted in several provinces and will be ready for take-off once the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) grants us a licence to operate. Lebohang was selected as one of the speakers at the 6th annual Forbes Woman Africa 2020 Leading Women Summit which profiled a variety of stars and trailblazing female leaders to celebrate the advancement of women

Under the direction of Dr Tanya Glatt, we manufacture serum eyedrops (SEDs) for patients with eye surface diseases. SEDs closely resemble natural tears and improve symptoms associated with dry eye disease. SEDs are currently made to order, but we are in the process of developing a more cost-effective off-the-shelf product. SANBS provides a stem cell transplant service enabling doctors to treat their patients with a stem cell transplant, Dr Tanya leads this service as well

Dr Pheelo Lethola leads the #IronStrong programme which is aimed at providing iron supplements for all donors under the age of 46 to help replace the iron used during blood donations. Thanks to Dr Pheelo and her team, we are one of the few blood services globally that have a comprehensive programme of testing iron supplements at the time of donations.

Vanitha Rambiritch, head of learning and development (technical), has made a name for herself internationally in transfusion medicine training. She is a key member of the AABB Global Health Education Working Group and has been invited to co-author a book on transfusion medicine training which will form part of an international curriculum.

Dr Riana Cockeran, who works in our cell factory, developed a system to produce research-grade human platelet lysate, a product that is used to grow cells from expired platelet products. Currently, when researchers want to grow stem cells, for example, they use a bovine-based product which is not ideal. Now we can offer them the first commercial, research-grade human platelet lysate in South Africa. Dr Cockeran is also heading up a project to collect mesenchymal stromal cells (MSCs). The use of these cells is exploding in the treatment of chronic inflammatory conditions, such as ulcerative colitis and other autoimmune diseases.

Marion Vermeulen, researcher and national manager for donation testing at SANBS. She conducted research on the use of COVID-19 convalescent plasma (CCP), also known as ‘survivors’ plasma’, to treat high-risk COVID-19 patients. CCP contains antibodies, or special proteins, generated by the body’s immune system, to the coronavirus. The research has shown that, if given to elderly patients and those with co-morbidities within a day or two of being diagnosed, it can boost their ability to fight the virus.

CCP has been used to treat select patients with COVID who are immunosuppressed – like cancer, stem cell transplant and organ transplant patients – with positive results. Marion also led a COVID seroprevalence study, which has enabled us to track the spread of the disease throughout the country over time using samples from blood donors that we test for COVID antibodies. This data is being used by the COVID Ministerial Advisory Committee and is helping to inform the response to public health needs.

These women are instrumental in making the SANBS the world class organisation it is, many more women in our organisation contribute daily to our mandate as blood service – to save lives. We are grateful that they chose to be with us and continue to make a positive impact on our society while breaking boundaries through their phenomenal work.