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Scientist Brings Improved Cancer Treatment To Afghan Patients

Shakardokht Jafari
Shakardokht Jafari

Medical physicist Shakardokht Jafari was recently awarded a prestigious British award for developing a way of monitoring radiotherapy doses using inexpensive glass beads. Thirty-nine-year-old Jafari says the innovation will open up new options for treating cancers around the world. She intends to return to Afghanistan to open the country’s first radiotherapy department, which will cater to a growing number of cancer patients in the country.

RFE/RL: Could you tell us more about the award you received from the UK government?

Shakardokht Jafari: I am among 15 female entrepreneurs who won Innovate UK’s Infocus awards, which seek to support inspiring women in innovation today and tomorrow.

Following a nationwide competition to identify and empower the country’s most promising female entrepreneurs and future business leaders, this November Innovate UK announced the names of their 15 Infocus winners for 2016. (Each winner receives $65,000 and a tailored business support package).

RFE/RL: Tell us about the device you invented for the treatment of cancer patients.

Jafari: Current radiotherapy treatments for cancer use beams of radiation to kill the actual tumor cells and try to miss the healthy surrounding cells and organs. However, the beams are invisible, and very often damage does occur.

Many radiotherapy centers use a pattern of tiny beams to closely match the shape of the target tumor but it is hugely difficult to know what radiation hits where. In a typical treatment of 20 sessions, clinicians want to know quickly if the radiation is hitting anything it should not.

I have developed small, reusable strings of tiny calibrated silica beads to measure received radiation. The silica beads can be used on the skin but, crucially, as they are safe inert material, they can be used inside the body much closer to the tumor. After treatment, the beads can be scanned by an automated reader to provide accurate measurements of the levels and spread of the received radiation. The patient’s treatment can then be adjusted accordingly.

With our bead arrays and automated readers, radiotherapy teams worldwide will be able to adjust treatments or environments far more quickly, reduce damage to potentially millions of people, and extend countless more lives.

RFE/RL: What was the main motive behind your invention?

Jafari: In Afghanistan, there has been no radiotherapy treatment available since the war with the Soviets, meaning that cancer patients face a poor prognosis if they are unable to afford to travel to neighboring countries and pay for treatment. Seeing my own father die prematurely from cancer prompted me to specialize in the area of radiotherapy in order to do something about cancer care in Afghanistan.

RFE/RL: Is the dosimeter available to everyone?

Jafari: One of the unique value propositions of this dosimetry system is affordability and low-maintenance requirement that makes it suitable for both developing and developed countries.

RFE/RL: Do you intend to utilize your invention in Afghanistan?

Jafari: Yes, using this system in our future radiotherapy centers will have a very positive impact on the outcome of radiotherapy treatments in Afghanistan, especially due to the simplicity and robustness of the system.

RFE/RL: What is your main message to Afghan women in Afghanistan?

Jafari: If we want equal rights of men and women in our country, we need to be equally educated and empowered. And to do so we need to build our self-esteem and be confident about our abilities.