High impact publications from ACGT partner institutions, April-May 2013

Honorary Professor Osman Sankoh from the School of Public Health is a co-author on the article “The global distribution and burden of dengue” that was published in Nature in April 2013. Dengue is a systemic viral infection that is transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes and usually results in a wide range of clinical symptoms, from mild fever to severe fatal dengue shock syndrome. The study estimated that the global burden of dengue is around 390 million infections per year – this is three times higher than the figure currently reported by the World Health Organization.  To date there are no effective antiviral agents for the treatment of dengue, or a licensed vaccine for infection prevention. This study illuminates the global public health burden of dengue and will impact on the development of control strategies including vaccine, drug and vector control methods.

Source: Wits Health Sciences Research Newsletter- May 2013.05.29

Development of a new tool to identify broadly neutralising antibodies  against HIV strains

Professor Lynn Morris of the NICD AIDS Unit and the Wits Faculty of Health Sciences is a co-author on an article which was published in Science in May 2013. In the article entitled “Delineating Antibody Recognition in Polyclonal Sera from Patterns of HIV-1 Isolate Neutralization”, the authors describe the development of a new tool for identifying powerful, neutralising antibodies against most strains of HIV.  The new tool – known as neutralisation fingerprinting – is a mathematical algorithm that uses existing data on broadly neutralising antibodies (bNAbs) to accurately determine the specific HIV bNAbs in blood samples by analysing the neutralised HIV strains in these samples. This new tool is much faster and less laborious than existing methods that yield information about bNAbs and will be useful in the development of an effective HIV vaccine.

Source: Wits Health Sciences Research Newsletter- May 2013.05.29

South African scientist helps peers unravel the function of a bacterial cell membrane protein

Major step to unravelling the structure of membrane-bound proteins published in Nature journal.

In their pursuit of knowledge on cell biology, a group of international researchers has elucidated the structure of a bacterial cell membrane enzyme, which may one day contribute to unravelling new mechanisms to target a variety of diseases. One of the contributing researchers is South African biochemist, Dr Colin Kenyon, who has joined a handful of researchers at the CSIR to be published in the prestigious Nature journal. Kenyon, a principal researcher and CSIR Biosciences Fellow, contributed to an article titled, Crystal structure of the integral membrane diacylglycerol kinase, which was published in Nature’s online edition at www.nature.com on 15 May 2013.

Kenyon was approached by Prof Martin Caffrey, an expert in the field of the structure of membrane proteins at the School of Biochemistry and Immunology at Trinity College, Dublin in Ireland, on the basis of work Kenyon and his colleagues at the CSIR had published earlier. Kenyon’s research relates to the study of reaction mechanisms of proteins called kinases, and how these proteins use adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a molecule which is the energy currency of cells.  Kinases play a pivotal role in cellular metabolism and regulation, and therefore represent 20-30% of all targets in serious drug discovery programmes, for example, targeting the treatment of cancer and diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and other bacterial infections.

Historically, it has been difficult to determine the three-dimensional structure and function of membrane-bound proteins, information which is essential for this research. Researchers normally use X-ray crystallography to determine the structure of proteins, but membrane-bound proteins are situated in lipids, which means that they are hydrophobic – literally meaning ‘water fearing’. If extracted, they unravel and lose their structure. Thanks to groundbreaking research by teams such as the group headed by Caffrey, techniques are now being developed to determine the X-ray structure of crystallised membrane proteins.

Kenyon and his colleagues were requested to help define the functionality of the newly crystallised diacylglycerol kinase (a bacterial membrane enzyme), which Caffrey and his colleagues were studying. The group presented a crystal structure for three functional forms of the bacterial membrane enzyme.

“The membrane proteins are a potentially vast untapped source of new targets in drug discovery,” Kenyon says.

Nature’s impact factor is 36,28; this is a measure of how many times a journal generates citations in other work as measured by the Thomson Institute of Scientific Information. This is among the highest of any science journal and there is great competition among scientists to have their work published there. For most researchers, this type of publication is not only about the prestige of publishing in this specific journal, but also the credence it brings to years of exploratory research.

Source: CSIR eNews- May 2013

DST and TIA co-host Biocatalysis and Enzyme Manufacturing Stakeholder Workshop

A national Biocatalysis and Enzyme Manufacturing Stakeholder Workshop was held at the Irene Country Lodge on the 15th of March 2013. Co-hosted by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), the workshop aimed to assess stakeholder support for the establishment of a National Biocatalysis Centre, as well as the need for the capability to manufacture enzymes in South Africa. The ACGT was instrumental in the coordination of the event and pre-event facilitation between the hosts.

The morning session was driven by Ms Blanche Ting (DST Senior Specialist – Biotechnology) presented the role of biocatalysis in the new National Bioeconomy Strategy. Prof Dean Brady (HOD, School of Chemistry- Wits) elaborated on the proposed National Biocatalysis Centre, in which the University of the Witwatersrand and the CSIR act as hubs for the national network. The proposed centre was positively received by both academic and industry participants.

The afternoon session focussed on the need for local enzyme manufacturing and was driven by TIA. Dr Bethuel Nthangeni (Senior Investment Specialist Industrial Biotechnology Sector- TIA) presented TIA’s vision and approach in the industrial biotechnology sector.

Participants at the workshop were inclusive of academia, science councils, government, and industry. The workshop was well received and the organising team were commended for mobilising members from all sectors, especially industry. The day included two discussion sessions, the outcomes of which will be utilised by the hosts to plot a way forward. There was a lot of interest and support generated by the workshop and participants were keen to be informed of outcomes and events emanating from these efforts. The hosts will build on this momentum and ensure information and updates are communicated accordingly. Overall, participants hailed the event a great success.