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Winning Women: The nucleus of medicine

Oct 01 2017 06:00
Sue Grant-Marshall

Johannesburg - Every second of every day more than one nuclear imaging scan takes place throughout the world to help in early diagnosis of diseases and ailments such as cancers and cardiovascular disease. Additionally, nuclear medicine is used to treat cancer and other conditions.

The person rattling off facts about the 40 million annual nuclear medical procedures internationally is South Africa’s Tina Eboka. She heads NTP Radioisotopes SOC Ltd, a subsidiary company of the SA Nuclear Energy Corporation.

The story of NTP, its international success and indeed of Eboka herself is not an oft-told one, possibly because nuclear medicine can be tricky to understand.

Furthermore the word ‘nuclear’ has sinister undertones, which, in its medical context, are entirely without foundation. Nuclear radioisotopes sustain life. They do not destroy it.

Nuclear medicine uses tiny amounts of radioactive isotopes (radioisotopes), mostly for medical imaging to view the structure and function of organs, bone or tissue in the human body.

“Globally, we estimate 10 million patients are served by clinicians using products derived from NTP’s production facilities near our headquarters at the Pelindaba nuclear facility,” explains Eboka.

South Africa has been one of the top three global producers of a nuclear medicine isotope, Molybdenum-99 (Mo-99), for some years now. It achieves this because it has a nuclear reactor that was capable of research on producing an atomic bomb in the apartheid government days.

All that changed with the advent of democracy, when South Africa signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, the objective of which is, inter alia, to promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

“When Canada’s reactor was nearing its end, NTP stepped into the supply gap and we increased our market share,” says Eboka.

The role NTP plays is highlighted by the fact that the UK, for instance, with its population of 66 million, cannot produce Mo-99, “because they do not have an original facility, such as ours,” says Eboka.

The friendly MD, elegantly attired in subtle shades of grey, complemented with a pearl necklace and earrings, chuckles as she admits: “I was stunned to learn what NTP produces when I joined it.”

She points out that the US does about 20 million of the 40 million annual nuclear medical procedures (diagnosis and treatment).

“So, you can say we have an impact in 10 million other procedures on patients throughout the world. We have a market footprint in 50 countries.”

Eboka is proud of the dedication of her 60% black staff, explaining that they need to be at Pelindaba in the early hours of the morning to produce and ship off the nuclear medicine products in time to meet doctors’ needs.

“Molybdenum has a maximum half life of 66 hours. We have agreements with airlines and with OR Tambo for safe handling and shipping around the world.”

Eboka talks at length about the exceptional scientists, technologists and engineers working in the nuclear facility.

“As a country, we probably need to invest more in building the skills they possess and we need to encourage young people to do science.”

She always knew that maths and science were what she wanted to follow. “I wanted to be an engineer even though at Inanda Seminary high school, KwaZulu-Natal, they told me to be a lawyer.”

She first attended Fort Hare University in 1979 after she was not allowed to register at a “white” university during apartheid.

Then she applied for an American scholarship and did industrial engineering and applied mathematics at the State University of New York at Oneonta. She went on to complete a BSc in textile engineering in Philadelphia, followed by an MBA.

She has done leadership courses at the universities of Cornell and Harvard and, on her return to South Africa, she worked in high level positions at the CSIR.

Subsequently she was appointed executive committee director at Standard Bank, where she led group corporate affairs.

Eboka is married to well-known fashion designer Fred Eboka and they have two children, both in their twenties.

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