Dr Dineo Mpanya explores innovative heart health solutions in South Africa


Nuclear medicine physician and fashion designer Dr Dineo Mpanya is researching the use of machine learning algorithms to predict patients’ risk of heart failure.

Azania Mosaka recently spoke to nuclear medicine physician Dr Dineo Mpanya about how the Discovery Foundation has supported her research.

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How a floppy disc computer sparked an interest in medicine

In 1996, when Dr Mpanya was 12 years old, her uncle put a floppy disc computer in the bedroom that she shared with her two sisters in Lamontville, Durban. That was all it took to stir her curiosity about the world of medicine.

“I was fascinated by this box thing. My uncle was passionate about building computers using recycled parts. I worked out how to connect it because I had seen him use it. I taught myself how to type and how to put in the floppy disc and store information on it,” Dr Mpanya recalls.

By the time she was a boarder at the Sacred Heart Secondary School in Verulam, KwaZulu-Natal, she was so far ahead of her peers that the teacher appointed her computer room monitor.

Dr Mpanya and her older sister Palesa would also play with paper dolls, drawing models on cardboard and using tracing paper to design dresses, the wedding theme being a particular favourite. “My sister and friends soon got bored and stopped, but I carried on. I took things to another level and soon had a shoe box full of designs,” she says.

She informed her guidance teacher at school that she wanted to study graphic design but heard she was “brilliant enough” to be a doctor, lawyer or chartered accountant. “She advised me to continue designing as a hobby,” Dineo says, chuckling.

Her next seminal influence was when her school took the top performing learners on a tour of the Nelson Mandela University Medical School in Durban. “I was fascinated by a skeleton we saw. I wanted to know more and I kept asking questions.”

Combining computer science and nuclear medicine

Thirty years later, Dr Mpanya is a nuclear medicine physician at the Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital specialising in medical imaging.

What is nuclear medicine? “It’s using radioactive atoms to diagnose and treat illnesses,” she explains. Dr Mpanya works at the forefront of medicine and computer science, using machine learning algorithms on thousands of patients with heart failure. She is also a sought after fashion designer among her friends and family, with plans to go commercial in future.

The Discovery Foundation Academic Fellowship Awards aim to promote research focused training in academic medicine in South Africa, and develop more clinician scientists to benefit healthcare in society.

“I don’t have the words to explain how much of a blessing this award has been,” she says. “I took unpaid leave since last year March until December 2020. I can read and study from anywhere, and I can attend online classes.”

Dr Mpanya is putting her award to good use. She will be integrating computer science and medicine to develop supervised machine learning algorithms that predict the risk of hospitalisation and in hospital mortality in patients with heart failure. She will also focus on applying machine learning principles and artificial intelligence to analyse and interpret medical images.

Globally unique dataset tailored to local conditions

Her PhD project will facilitate precision medicine and enable channelling of resources to those with the greatest need. “There are currently few predictive models derived from data originating in Africa,” she explains.

“Internationally, doctors are far more advanced with electronic health records and have been collecting data on all their patients for years. We don’t do anything approaching that scale or across disciplines. Also, the cause of heart failure in the Western world is primarily coronary heart disease, unlike in Africa, where hypertension and rheumatic heart disease are the leading causes of heart failure.”

“Once a predictive model has been created, it will assist clinicians in the risk stratification of patients with heart failure, with high-risk patients being triaged to the appropriate level of care,” she adds.

She is doing her research in the Cardiology Department at Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital, looking at 5 000 patients whose data date back to 2009.

Dr Mpanya says she would like to become a professor and teach, but is also keen to share her gifts with others, collaborating in both medicine and fashion. “A fashion show would be quite nice,” she laughs.

Machine learning algorithms for patients with heart failure

Dr Mpanya hopes to complete her PhD research by December 2020. Her supervisor is Professor Turgay Celik from the School of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics at the University of the Witwatersrand. Prof Celik says that Dr Mpanya has an excellent understanding of the research problem and will make “significant contributions” to both deep learning literature and risk modelling.

There is a dire shortage of doctors in South Africa. The ability to classify patients with heart failure according to their risk profile and admit them to the appropriate level of care will reduce pressure on all healthcare facilities. This will also create a stronger healthcare system for all.

About the Discovery Foundation

Since 2006, the Discovery Foundation has invested over R256 million in grants to support academic medicine through research, development and training medical specialists in South Africa.

The Discovery Foundation is an independent trust with a clear focus – to strengthen the healthcare system – by making sure that more people have access to specialised healthcare services. Each year, the Discovery Foundation gives five different awards to outstanding individual and institutional awardees in the public healthcare sector.

Learn more about the Discovery Foundation Awards

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