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Lionel Opie (1933 - )

The Order of Mapungubwe in

Lionel Opie (1933 - ) Awarded for:
Excellent contribution to the knowledge of and achievement in the field of cardiology.

Profile of Lionel Opie

Lionel Opie, among the world's foremost scholars of heart disease, was born in Hanover, a small Karoo town, in 1933.

His father was a doctor and Opie's own interest in medicine was inspired by the discovery of penicillin in Oxford, England. He vowed to one day himself pursue medical research at the University of Oxford.

After qualifying in medicine at the University of Cape Town in 1955, Opie realised his ambition and went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar in 1957, where he earned a DPhil and trained with two Nobel prize winners, Professor Sir Hans Krebs at Oxford, and Professor Sir Ernst Chain at Imperial College, London.

Krebs had described the Krebs cycle that provides energy for the heart and Chain had shared the Nobel prize for the discovery of penicillin.

Opie followed this training with a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

On Opie's return to South Africa in 1971, Chris Barnard had just undertaken the first heart transplant and was promoting the need for further heart research. Barnard donated the money from the proceeds of his best-selling book, One Life, to Opie's research interests.

During an illustrious career, Opie has published 481 scientific articles, 31 books on heart disease and 141 contributions to other books. Two of his books have been translated into Chinese and one is the standard reference on the treatment of heart disease. He has also established two new journals with the help of his wife, Carol Sancroft-Baker.

Opie's research has benefited millions of people across the world.

His contributions have been in the area of cardiac metabolism during ischaemia and drug use. His work has led to an improved understanding of the causes of heart attacks and the better use of medication for heart disease.

His Glucose Hypothesis, published in 1970, has proved durable and his discovery of the role of excess cyclic AMP in sudden fatal heart attacks made world news. He went on to apply the latter to finding out why and how exercise training protects the heart.

For the past 10 years, Opie has held an A-rating by the National Research Foundation, one of only two medical doctors in South Africa with this honour. Among other honours, he holds an Honorary Doctorate of Medicine from the University of Copenhagen.

Opie is a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, the American College of Cardiology, the European Society of Cardiology, the International Society of Heart Research, the Royal Society of South Africa, the Physiological Society of Southern Africa and Fellow-Elect of the College of Physicians of South Africa.

He has been president of the International Society of Heart Research, the South African Cardiac Society and the South African Hypertension Society. He was recently elected to the International Editorial Board of the leading American heart journal, Circulation, as International Associate Editor for Africa.

Lionel Opie has worked with some of the giants of research and is considered Africa's greatest living heart doctor. Following Chris Barnard, he is South Africa's best-known cardiac doctor internationally.

He continues to work at the University of Cape Town on how the heart can best protect itself against challenges like the lack of oxygen and the lack of blood flow, using new techniques of molecular biology. His other research focus at present is the growing epidemic of obesity and diabetes, including in South Africa.

Professor Opie is committed to making a difference by undertaking research that matters. In his mid-70s, he is still an active researcher, putting in 10-hour days in his laboratory. This year he has already published four articles in Lancet, the world's leading medical journal.

With one of his great mentors, Sir Hans Krebs, Professor Opie shares the motto: 'Work is fun, and fun is work'.