African scientists and postgraduates set to benefit from biotechnology partnership

African scientists and postgraduates working in biotechnology are set to benefit from a partnership between the African Centre for Gene Technology (ACGT), a South African network of excellence in modern biotechnology, and the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), announced in Pretoria this week.

The combined resources of the partners, which include the CSIR and the University of Pretoria (UP), will greatly enhance the ACGT’s ability to create opportunities for the involvement of African scientists throughout the region and further develop its network of excellence in biotechnology. It will also help with effectively linking local and international role-players at the forefront of biotechnology research world-wide – a significant and important growth area in the global research arena.

According to ACGT Director, Prof Jane Morris, “We will also be promoting postgraduate education and facilitating the generation of intellectual property and the dissemination of knowledge. We are indeed pleased to involve a broader range of players within the region.” To this end, Research Project Manager at Wits Enterprise, Mr Tendani Nevondo, has been appointed to the ACGT management team for half of his contracted time with the institution.

The ACGT was established in 2000 under the auspices of the Southern Education and Research Alliance (SERA) as a centre of excellence in modern biotechnology, with a particular focus on genetics, genomics, proteomics and bioinformatics, and their applications. SERA is an inclusive partnership between the CSIR and UP.

Head of the School of Molecular and Cell Biology at Wits, Prof Chrissie Rey says that biotechnology is not yet well-developed enough in South Africa for universities to be competing with each other for research funds, investment capital and innovative ideas. “Cooperation would be more worthwhile and appropriate at this moment in time in order to establish a viable biotechnology discipline in South Africa”, she added.

According to Rey, the Research Triangle in North Carolina, USA is a similar concept spanning three universities and encompassing a number of biotechnology companies. “A consortium of universities and organisations within the Gauteng industrial area could work cooperatively towards the successful establishment of a modern biotechnology industry in order to meet the needs of South Africa and indeed the rest of the continent.”

One such need is the improvement of malaria prevention and control – a parasitic disease that affects millions each year. The ACGT partners, with the University of Cape Town, have been instrumental in the establishment of the South African Malaria Initiative (SAMI) to facilitate the integration of malaria research and related capacity development in South Africa and the rest of Africa.

Rey also indicated that Wits could make a significant contribution to the strengthening and broadening of the activities of the ACGT by developing networks and research collaborations, strengthening gene technologies and identifying mutual potential commercialisation opportunities in biotechnology.

From the Wits Enterprise perspective, CEO Peter Bezuidenhoudt expressed his excitement at this extension to their current commercialisation activities in biotechnology. “We have identified biotechnology as a massive growth area and this partnership will assist us to capitalise on this opportunity,” he said.