The idea to use 3D scanning and printing techniques to create breast prostheses is fairly new, but very promising. It allows individual prostheses to be exactly matched to the shape and skin colour of a breast lost to surgery. A small team of researchers from South Africa is pioneering the approach.
Globally, over one million women are diagnosed with breast cancer ever year and face a very difficult decision. While the female breast is not an essential organ, choosing to amputate one or both breasts is never easy, even if it is the only chance for survival. While surgeons today try to remove only the affected tissue to preserve as much of the breast as possible, sometimes a radical mastectomy is necessary.
Worldwide, breast cancer is the most prevalent type of invasive tumour in women. In many countries, it is also the most common cause of death for women between the ages of 30 and 60. Although public discourse on breast cancer is now widespread, mastectomies were considered a taboo topic until very recently. It took prominent women like Angelina Jolie and Christina Applegate speaking out about their experience of breast amputation to highlight the issue in the public eye.
Following a mastectomy, women can chose between breast reconstruction surgery and wearing prosthesis to preserve the natural look of breasts. Many opt for the first, which involves stretching the skin over the missing breast, then inserting either an artificial breast implant or tissue from another part of the body. But surgery always involves risk, and sometimes the results are far from satisfactory. Depending on how much of the breast had to be removed, women are often left without nipples and with very prominent and visible scars. Not every patient can or wants to undergo the procedure.
Med-Q magazine Exclusive Interview with Nneile Nkholise:
“Words fail me, whenever I have to express my gratitude to The Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEF) because it is not everyday that one comes across a foundation that continues to support 1000 entrepreneurs every year. The best way to describe my gratitude to The Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEF), is the expression of joy in my team’s eyes”.
Nneile Nkholise is a social entrepreneur and the founder of Likoebe Innovations, a startup creating innovative products in the medical and educational sector.I was raised by a single parent being my mom. I am a firm believer in the omnipotent God, and I believe in love and everything in between that makes life worth living blissfully. I’m a mechanical engineer by profession, a sport activist by passion and a social entrepreneur by devotion.”
You are the founder and director of iMED Tech Group and Likoebe Innovations Consultants also the inventor of Breast prosthesis. How and when was this idea birthed?
I always say that the idea is a 1999 dream which only became real in 2015. In 1999, I had the opportunity of creating a Science project back at primary school, and my project was about cancer and the dangers of how our lifestyles could lead to cancer. Somehow my mom being an educator, she had some medical books which I am still puzzled to this day why she bought the medical books, but those books were my biggest source of knowledge, and they allowed me to make a definite decision that at some point in my life, I would like to help in the fight or treatment of cancer. It took 16 years before I could finally realize the dream.
When and how did it all start and what inspired you?
It was during my Masters studies when I got inspired to start. I had one of the greatest opportunities of studying at an institution which was the first to introduce Additive Manufacturing in South Africa (I could say Africa too, judging by the ground-breaking research that has been made). So in my Masters, I was looking at the applications of AM technology and other 3D Computer Aided Design techniques, to manufacture external facial features, such as ears for people who have lost them due to traumatic experiences such as accidents and burns. It was during that time when I discovered that the same process chain can be used in creating breast prosthesis, to meet the ever-increasing demand of women who have lost breasts post-mastectomy, due to breast cancer.
You were recognised as one of Africa’s top female innovator at the World Economic Forum,what do you have to say about that ?
It remains one of my most cherished award, because back when I was 11 years old, I was introduced to the African Renaissance in primary school (so we were 36 in class and our teacher grouped us into 12 groups, 4 in each group and she gave each group an African country name, which we had to keep for the whole year and we had to learn about that country), and our teacher told us that our lives can never be fulfilled unless we do something to develop Africa. From that moment on, it was my mission to contribute towards the development of my continent. So, there is nothing as humbling and rewarding, as having your efforts being recognized.
Please tell us how the Breast Prosthesis works?
Breast prosthesis is an external breast-like product that is placed on the area where a woman’s breast has been removed during mastectomy. A breast prosthesis helps women gain their confidents because the loss of a precious body part such as a breast can affect women badly particularly because of the relationship that women have with their breasts
Are there any limitations in using the Breast Prosthesis and why is different from others?
Breast prosthesis being external products, they sit inside a bra, so they are not permanently attached to the body like in the case of implants or if someone does breast reconstruction.
What have you achieved so far since this idea started (awards etc)
Well numerous awards, such as winning Presidential award and the South African Youth awards, 2017. Have also been recognized in the top 50 women in Science and Tech in South Africa. An Alumna of the Tony Elumelu Foundation
I have currently made Top 50 of Africa Entrepreneurship Award 2017
How long did it take for the Breast Prosthesis to come into reality?
It took two years, of research and building an innovative business model
What do you understand by the phrase “Healthcare Innovation”?
Healthcare innovation is about creating innovative products and services that will improve people’s healthcare or access to quality healthcare.
Do you believe that healthcare innovation can help improve Africa’s health sector and why?
Africa’s healthcare sector is faced with deep challenges which can only be addressed through innovations such as innovative medical devices that can diagnose diseases quickly. For example the CT scan machine is an innovation that revolutionized image acquisition.
How can we bring specialists, medical personnel and even individuals in the healthcare space to embrace innovation in Africa?
Innovation in healthcare should can be achieved by creating a collaborative eco-space where everyone has a passion for healthcare development particularly in quality service delivery that is accessible, and adequate to meet Africans’ needs regardless of socio-economic status. Medical personnel play a pivotal role in ensure that we achieve the goal of creating an ecosystem where there is strong collaboration between them and tech innovators like us, because they have they are a hub of knowledge, expertise and experience in healthcare issues.
How can Africans embrace healthcare innovation?
By supporting innovations that are created by African start-ups and launched in Africa with the purpose of bettering Africans’ health and well-being. Innovation becomes truly successful if there are people who commit themselves using that innovations to ensure that entrepreneurs who have created such products or services are able to scale their innovation quickly.
What role is iMED Tech Group playing to enable individuals, medical personnel, and society at large to embrace healthcare innovation.
iMed Tech has one of the greatest role and opportunity of educating people on the applications of Additive Manufacturing in the health industry, particularly in external prostheses fabrication. Through our conjugated efforts in innovating process chains of how AM can be applied to creating prosthesis, we are not only creating products to help people, but we are paving a new path for healthcare innovation using Additive Manufacturing and many related Computer Aided Design tools.
There are a lot of people out there that what to be innovative and some even have great innovations that will impact lives but don’t know how to take it to the next level. What advise do you have for such people.
My best advise to them is to just do it, with the understanding that it will take a lot of sacrifice to achieve the goals you set through your innovation. The roadmap of innovation from idea to a final product that is in the market takes a lot of sacrifice that is strengthened by one’s desire to learn a lot, accepting that you will fail along the way, however having the deep obsession to break through the storm.
Since the invention of the Breast Prosthesis what have been its breakthroughs?
The biggest breakthrough for us was getting the product approved by the Medical Controls Council in South Africa, which meant that Medical Aid companies could pay for the product.
Also the huge leaps we have made in breast prosthesis innovation which has attracted global companies to work with us, and support our company development.
Were you at any point scared of the dream if it won’t work and how did you overcome?
The dream has always scared me, because coming from a small town in Free State, South Africa, one never imagined that I could build an idea into something this great that shows tremendous potential.
I always believed that if your dream doesn’t scare you, then you are not dreaming big enough.
How were you able to start such healthcare business in Africa despite the challenges in Africa?
I’ve always been an optimist throughout my life; when people see challenges, I see opportunities. Africa was and remains the perfect place that I could have built my company at, because it has so many opportunities in Healthcare.
I’m a social entrepreneur and my company was built on addressing the challenges that are faced in society, particularly in healthcare because I have a belief which I share with my team that; Healthcare should be at the center of critical development needed in Africa. Healthcare in the key to us achieving economic prosperity, because we need healthy people in government, banks, organizations, for us to fulfill other sectors of continental development.
You are an alumna of The Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Programme, we will like to know how the Foundation has impacted your live and your business
smiles with deep sigh...I entered TEEP now The Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEF) at the time in my life when I was a raw entrepreneur; I had recently transitioned from the tech world of engineering where my whole life was centered around engineering research, design, problem-solving and project management, to a world of business where acronyms such as ROI were a dark mystery to me.
Being part of TEEP helped me grow into being a well-groomed entrepreneur and business leader. I was given skills that helped me handle my innovation and build it into a thriving business. TEEP has a team of global leaders who understand how to uniquely nurture entrepreneurs and start-ups, support them in taking risks and invest in their growth. It is something that one could have never found anywhere else.
What will you like to say to The Tony Elumelu Foundation
Words fail me, whenever I have to express my gratitude to The Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEF) because it is not everyday that one comes across a foundation that continues to support 1000 entrepreneurs every year. The best way to describe my gratitude to The Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEF), is the expression of joy in my team’s eyes.
What excites you most about what you do?
“The ability to change people’s lives for the better. The ability to make someone feel good.
What are the challenges you encounter daily and how do you overcome them?
The challenges we are encountering now is growth. We are growing exponentially beyond how we planned, and we must deal with challenges of meeting demands with our current team and the current resources we have.
How do you see the company in ten years’ time?
We want to build iMed Tech into a global medical prosthesis manufacturing company that is particularly segmented at custom prosthesis using innovative technologies of the future. Based on the growing relationships that we are building with global companies in Additive Manufacturing and Healthcare, in 10 years’ time we would be leading medical prosthesis innovation and being a company of choice for talented young people within the medical, technology and innovation space.
What will you say is your philosophy of life?
My philosophy in life is the foundation of where my business begun.
I believe that our lives are connected by invisible threads that bind us as humans by love and the understanding that my true purpose is to enrich the life of the next person by showing them love and compassion. At the center of every business that was started, lies a human life that people wanted to change for the better. Cars were invented to help people commute better, Facebook was started to help people communicate better, a telephone was invented so that people can communicate across the world. So with all inventions, there is a human life that an inventor owed the responsibility of making better.
Our Website: www.neyneprosthesis.co.za