Taking Fundamental Science into the Real World: Innovations by Dr. James Keaveney

Dr. James Keaveney, a particle physicist at the University of Cape Town and the first recipient of the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust New Frontiers Research Award, is spearheading revolutionary advancements in medical imaging by leveraging fundamental research in particle physics.

In the early 1950s, physicist Allan Cormack at the University of Cape Town delved into fundamental nuclear interactions, exploring the limits of X-ray technology. By 1956, Cormack laid the groundwork for what would become the CAT (computerised axial tomography) scan, a groundbreaking medical imaging technique. His efforts, in collaboration with British engineer Godfrey Newbold Hounsfield, earned them the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1979. Beyond the accolade, their innovation has had a profound and lasting impact on medical diagnostics worldwide.

This narrative of fundamental research leading to transformative technology is not unique. Many significant technological advancements have their roots in basic research. Thriving economies globally are bolstered by robust research and development, with fundamental research at their core. Just as Cormack’s curiosity led to a medical revolution, recent strides in particle physics promise breakthroughs that could revolutionize daily life, particularly in medical imaging.

Dr. James Keaveney has dedicated his career to unraveling the fundamental workings of nature through sophisticated experiments at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva. He has developed advanced detectors, artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms, and led international teams to enhance our understanding of nature.

With the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust New Frontiers Research Award, Dr. Keaveney aims to follow in Cormack’s footsteps, transforming cutting-edge medical imaging to be cheaper, safer, more precise, and accessible. This prestigious award, valued at R7.5 million over five years, seeks to rejuvenate South Africa’s reputation for research excellence by supporting master’s and doctoral studies, as well as postdoctoral research.

PET (positron emission tomography) is the most sensitive medical imaging technique available, crucial for cancer diagnosis and monitoring treatment responses. Additionally, PET plays a vital role in diagnosing and treating tuberculosis (TB), the leading cause of death in South Africa and the top infectious killer globally after COVID-19. Despite its importance, PET is costly and therefore limited in low- and middle-income countries. According to research by scientists at the universities of Cape Town and Stellenbosch, 62% of South Africa’s 21 PET scanners are in the private sector, serving only 18% of the population.

Dr. Keaveney envisions revolutionizing PET imaging using technology from particle physics. Quantum-dot nanocrystals, tiny yet powerful detectors, promise dramatic improvements in PET efficiency. These nanocrystals could extend PET’s application beyond cancer to cardiovascular and infectious diseases, stem cell-based tissue repair, inflammation, and even prenatal care. Notably, one in 1,000 pregnant women is diagnosed with cancer annually. Quantum dots are inexpensive to produce, making them a cost-effective solution for expanding PET accessibility.

To enhance PET precision and reduce costs further, Dr. Keaveney plans to harness AI, specifically real-time inference, where AI algorithms provide immediate insights. This advancement could revolutionize PET imaging, allowing doctors to perform biopsies guided by real-time AI analysis, making procedures faster, more precise, and safer.

The success of any research project hinges on assembling a top-tier team and establishing robust collaborations. Dr. Keaveney will integrate his team within the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) well-resourced Department of Physics. He also highlights the immense potential of South Africa’s young talent, praising the intelligence, enthusiasm, and resilience of physics and engineering students at UCT and across the country.

A key collaboration is with the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in Muizenberg, Cape Town. AIMS recently launched an AI for Science Master’s programme, funded by Google DeepMind. Dr. Keaveney’s research on Real-Time AI for Particle Physics will become a cornerstone of this programme, attracting motivated and excellent young African students.

Despite South Africa’s limited research funding compared to developed countries, its history of scientific excellence is notable, with three Nobel Prizes in science. In 2021/22, South Africa’s research and development spending was only 0.62% of its GDP, far below the EU’s 3% target. Many South African researchers come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and the socio-economic impact of scientific inquiry here is profound.

Dr. Keaveney emphasizes the transformative impact of nurturing young talent in South Africa, where many students are the first in their families to pursue higher education. The country’s rising educational attainment and the determination of its students provide a fertile ground for scientific success.

With the New Frontiers Research Award, Dr. Keaveney and his team aim to harness fundamental research to create life-changing innovations, positively impacting lives in South Africa and beyond.

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    Webster Molaudi

    With over 20 years of experience in digital marketing, I possess a demonstrated history of success in overseeing online communities and executing digital advertising initiatives for esteemed brands such as Sowetan LIVE, SundayWorld newspaper, 3S Media, Peugeot and Citroen South Africa, RedSquare, Motus Renault South Africa and various private enterprises.
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