Research Projects

Cancer risk during urbanization: Metabolic syndrome – Dr Theo Nell

Cancer risk during urbanization: Metabolic syndrome – Dr Theo Nell

Dr Theo Nell

Dr Theo Nell

Dr Theo Nell

Project Title

Cancer risk during urbanization: Metabolic syndrome and cancer.

Project Description

The occurrence of the metabolic syndrome – a cluster of metabolic risk factors that predispose to future onset of diabetes, heart diseases and cancer – is global. This includes both developed and developing nations and is projected to significantly increase the burden of disease in lower-income countries.  The metabolic syndrome typically consists of any three of the following risk factors: abdominal obesity, hypertension, raised triglycerides, reduced high density lipoprotein cholesterol, and elevated blood glucose levels. However, despite these alarming projections very limited data currently exists for developing and increasingly urbanized nations, especially within sub-Saharan Africa. In light of this, the current study planned to undertake a comprehensive investigation into an under-studied population in the Western Cape, examining urbanization trends and risk for developing cancer. The researchers assessed lifestyle and dietary patterns in this population, and linked these findings with anthropometric measurements and blood metabolites. The study aimed to provide significant insights into the extent of the metabolic syndrome in farmworkers in the Western Cape. These findings will then inform inputs regarding initiatives required to counteract the rising incidence of the metabolic syndrome and cancer in Southern Africa.


Results indicate that women from the Stellenbosch farming communities are potentially at risk for developing lifestyle associated cancers as well as cardio-metabolic disease.

The researchers hosted information sessions for all possible study participants as well as clinic staff where they provided education on risk factors for lifestyle-related diseases, and dietary advice to participants with elevated blood glucose, lipid profiles and blood pressure. Where health problems were identified, participants were referred for additional care. The researchers have also been invited by the Pebbles project as well as Solms Delta Trustees to provide talks on lifestyle choices, risk of cancers and the metabolic syndrome during Cancer Month in October 2016. Capacity building and assistance was also provided to the clinic and staff at Owethu clinic, including staff training and donation of equipment.

Additionally, the researchers established international collaboration with Coventry University in the UK and have, through this collaboration, applied for UK-SA MRC funding to continue with the study. The researchers plan to include a clinical epidemiological, molecular and genetic component in future research, with the potential of an intervention in this high risk population.

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