Kudos to the regal young scientist whose ground-breaking research has uncovered the reversal effect of cannabis on drug-resistant cancer.

Words by: Zanele Kumalo
Illustratrion by: Kyzia Wint

‘They call me “the cannabis queen”, laughs Innocensia Mangoato, the pharmacology masters graduate and lecturer at the University of the Free State (UFS), making waves with her groundbreaking findings into the effect cannabis has on drug-resistant cancer.

The difference between this young woman and other ‘cannabis queens’, like lifestyle and food guru Martha Stewart, who launched her pet-safe CBD products earlier this year, and Dina Browner, a medical marijuana activist and dispenser to stars like Snoop Dogg, is that Innocensia is only 27 and is at the cusp of a burgeoning career in science.

Awards (so far) include the South African Women in Science Award in 2018 and, more recently, a finalist as one of Mail & Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans 2019.

Whether you call it weed, marijuana, ganja or dagga, you would have grown up with it being illegal for recreational and medicinal use in this country but Innocensia’s work has been important in changing laws and perceptions about what some dub the holy plant.

When she started her master’s degree in 2016, the UFS department of pharmacology was the only institute in South Africa that had a permit to conduct research into cannabis but traditional healers have long used it to help alleviate conditions like chronic pain, anxiety, colic, insomnia and infections. That’s partly what led Innocensia right to cannabis’ doorstep.

‘I initially wanted to study medicine because I was fascinated by the physiology and anatomy of the human body.’ But after matric she enrolled in a BSc degree in genetics, then completed an Honours degree in pharmacology, saying: “I took a shot at it and fell in love. I found my calling. I got to study how drugs affect our bodies and how we react to them.’

That’s also when she was started researching indigenous medicinal plants and how they can be developed into medicines that help cure or manage certain diseases, with less severe adverse effects.

“I wanted to learn more about traditional African medicine because every other drug out there, like aspirin and anti-malarial drugs, are all sourced from plants.’

This got her interested in Cannabis sativa L., which, prior to achieving its illicit substance status, has been used in medicine for thousands of years. She now wants to raise awareness of the medicinal aspect of the plant while demystifying old misconceptions around its practice.

‘The first formal report of cannabis as a medicine appeared in China nearly 5 000 years ago when it was recommended for malaria, constipation, rheumatic pains and childbirth’, Innocensia explains. ‘It was even mixed with wine as a surgical analgesic.’

Her real interest in cannabis started, however, during her master’s degree when she noticed that ‘most cannabis research in cancer focused on the anti-cancer effects of cannabinoids, and the extensively-studied, highly-praised properties of THC.’

But few understood, or concentrated on, the plant’s incredible potential to help reverse the body’s resistance to cancer drugs. “For me, this was it.”

And that’s what’s winning her all the accolades. She’s shown that Cannabis sativa L., in different preparations or extracts, can actually reverse anti-cancer drug resistance in certain lung and colon cancer cells.

Innocensia says the most surprising results suggest that it can even be used in combination therapy to reverse multi-drug resistant cancer.

‘These results are exciting and build a firm foundation for my PhD study as I’ll be expanding the topic of how cannabis can alleviate cancer drug resistance.’

Still, the biggest challenge has been talking about medical marijuana and educating people on the medicinal aspects of it.

‘I once said that I hope my research will influence South Africa’s policy on the use and decriminalisation of cannabis. And guess what? It felt good a few weeks later when cannabis was finally decriminalised.’

While she’s happy that people are now more open-minded towards cannabis, she doesn’t get high on the herb herself because she believes ‘we also need to educate people on the side effects of cannabis because, like anything consumed in excess, it can become toxic to the human body.’

Instead, she hopes that her research into traditional medicines like cannabis will create a better understanding of the drug development process, result in more scientific innovation that will help improve our country and help Africans appreciate, and make use of, their own natural resources. ‘Africa is a rich continent,’ she maintains.

Born in exile to Tanzanian and South African parents and the only daughter in her family, Innocensia is proud to inspire young women. ‘What matters greatly is being a point of reference for any young girl who aspires to follow a career in science.’

Little surprise then that this young scientist, who describes herself as resilient, strong-willed, kind and hardworking, has found the right mix of groundwork - a good marathon, a well-deserved cocktail and Idols battle every now and again - to blaze her own trail…

Innocensia, you are the future; and we salute you!

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