Born and raised in Lansdowne (Cape Town), Maryam Fish is described as ‘soft spoken’ and ‘shy’. If you met her for the first time, you would not know that she is the ‘hard-as-nails’ PhD graduate that made the biggest South African medical discovery since Chris Barnard performed the first heart transplant, some 50 years ago.
The 30 year old Maryam basically discovered a gene that causes heart related deaths among athletes and people under the age of 35. By discovering the gene, researchers can now begin to find ways to stop the gene from killing young people. If you are an athlete or under 35, Maryam is the reason why you stand a greater chance of living a longer and healthier life.
Of course, Maryam is part of a research team, and the two people that was instrumental in helping her find that gene is Gasnat Shoobadien and Sarah Krause.
For those of you that don’t know what a gene is, it is what makes us who we are. If you have brown eyes and curly hair, it is because there is information in the genes that says you should have brown eyes and curly hair.
To put it another way, if the human body was a car, then the genes are the instruction manual for building the car. The instructions would include everything from how to put the engine together to which spray paint to use on the body.
Now, imagine that an instruction manual gets printed that contains the wrong instructions. The car gets built and they find out later that the engine keeps dying. The only way to find out the why the engine is dying is by finding the faulty instruction manual. By reading through the manual, we identify where the mistakes are and then the mistakes are fixed. This is basically the same with genes. The dying engine is basically the heart and Maryam found the faulty gene and now they are ‘reading’ through the gene to see where everything went wrong.
Of course, a gene is not as big as a normal manual. In fact, a gene is a few thousand times smaller than a speck of dust and it takes a super genius to ‘read’ through all the genes. Maryam had worked several years on trying to find the faulty gene and she says that she is relieved to have solved the problem after so long.
Not only will the discovery lead to many lives being saved, but it has also put South Africa on the map as a serious international player in the field of genetic research.
If you are interested in reading the published paper, you can find it at, Circulation: Cardiovascular Genetics.