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Prof Donita Africander

Inaugural lecture:

25 June 2024 @ 17:3019:30

Improving women’s health: insights into contraceptives and menopausal hormone therapy

Donita Africander’s passion for progestins and their impact on women’s health was sparked during her PhD studies. Ever since, she has been exploring the biological effects of progestins used in contraceptives and menopausal hormone therapy. She is particularly interested in the side-effects associated with progestins, such as an increased incidence of breast cancer and susceptibility to HIV.

Donita and her team use cutting-edge molecular approaches to investigate the cellular mechanisms of different progestins by employing model systems for immunity, breast cancer, obesity, and steroid biosynthesis. Her inaugural lecture specifically highlights the progression of her research, focusing on (i) progestin mechanisms via steroid receptors, (ii) progestin effects on immunity in the female genital tract, (iii) the role of progestins in obesity and breast cancer, and (iv) how progestins influence steroid biosynthesis and metabolism.

Progestin mechanisms via steroid receptors: Progestins are synthetic compounds designed to elicit progestogenic effects similar to those of natural progesterone by binding to the progesterone receptor (PR). Most of Donita’s work in this field centres on comparative studies of progesterone and various clinically available progestins. Together with her team and the research group of Prof Janet Hapgood at the University of Cape Town, she investigates the binding and transcriptional activity of progestins to steroid receptors other than the PR, considering different steroid receptor isoforms as well as the density of the receptor.

Progestin effects on immunity in the female genital tract: Investigating progestin effects on mucosal immunity in the female genital tract is crucial to understanding their implications for susceptibility to genital tract infections such as HIV. Donita’s team along with Prof Hapgood have examined progestin-specific effects on inflammation in the cervicovaginal environment, and the role of different steroid receptors in mediating these effects.

The role of progestins in obesity and breast cancer: Donita’s research group also investigates progestin-specific mechanisms in breast cancer models, and how these are influenced by adiposity. Considering that different steroid receptors can be expressed in breast cancer tumours, with a clinically relevant interplay between some receptors, her group has a specific interest in how different levels and combinations of steroid receptors may influence these mechanisms.

The modulation of steroid biosynthesis and metabolism by progestins: The biological actions of progestins are not only determined by their interactions with steroid receptors, but also by their metabolism, pharmacokinetics and bioavailability. For this reason, Donita’s group also studies the biosynthesis and metabolism of endogenous steroids in adipocyte, breast and adrenal models.


Short biography

Donita Africander is a professor of Biochemistry at Stellenbosch University (SU). Having completed her MSc in Medical Biochemistry at SU, she started out as a technical officer in the Biochemistry Department. Having worked her way to the position of junior lecturer, she enrolled for her PhD, which she completed in 2010. Her dissertation compared the molecular mechanisms of two progestins commonly used in injectable contraception in sub-Saharan Africa. This former visiting scientist of the United States Population Council’s Centre for Biomedical Research at Rockefeller University in New York was promoted to a full professor at SU in January 2024.

Donita currently leads SU’s progestin and steroid receptor research group. She has successfully supervised or co-supervised 24 postgraduate students, including 12 MSc students who graduated cum laude, and mentored two postdoctoral fellows. Another four PhD and four MSc students are currently benefiting from her expert guidance, and she has also mentored four young scholars in SU’s Early-Career Academic Development Programme.

Along with members of her research group and other collaborators, Donita has published several articles in international peer-reviewed journals. She has delivered keynote addresses, served on conference organising committees and chaired conference sessions both nationally and abroad. In addition, she is a former treasurer of the South African Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and currently serves as senior editor of both the Journal of Molecular Endocrinology and the Journal of Endocrinology. As guest editor, Donita also contributes to a special issue of the Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology on steroid receptor signalling in hormone-dependent cancers. A champion for career advancement and diversity, she is a valued member of the Appointments and Academic Promotions Committee as well as the Transformation Advisory Committee of the Faculty of Science.



25 June 2024

Organizer (event)

Amira Brown