SERA establishes a National Centre of Expertise

SERA has established the African Centre for Gene Technologies (ACGT) as a biotechnology platform in third generation biotechnology, with a particular focus on gene and genome analysis and applications thereof. Prof Jane Morris, formerly Manager Strategic Technologies at Biochemtek, is the Director of the new Centre.

As for the abbreviated name, a pun was intended”, she quips. “The letters ACGT also happen to be the letters that stand for the names of the bases that make up the structure of DNA.”

The aim of this national centre of expertise in biotechnology is to meet the needs of and promote the as yet undeveloped biotechnology industry in South Africa.

“The initiative will position the CSIR and UP, in conjunction with other collaborators, as key players in biotechnology in South Africa and will greatly enhance the ability of the CSIR-UP alliance to access funding from both the private and public sectors,” Dr Morris said.

The Government’s National Biotechnology Strategy, which is to be implemented shortly, makes provision for the establishment of Biotechnology Regional Innovation Centres. These will create value for the country through biotechnology-related enterprises.

In the context of this strategy, the ACGT will link with existing expertise in other areas of biotechnology to form an integrated biotechnology platform to undertake projects from conception to commercialisation and deliver students trained in the most modern technologies.

According to Dr Morris, the establishment of such a technology platform in genomics, proteomics, bioinformatics and related technologies is a major requirement for the CSIR-UP alliance to become world class in third-generation biotechnology and critical to address the needs of our primary targets, namely Life Sciences, including health, and agro-foods.

There are many centres around the world that are very strong in this area. One reason is that globally gene technologies are becoming key technologies in the advancement of biotechnology. The possession of expertise in these areas is essential for competitive R&D, according to Dr Morris.

Research commissioned by the CSIR indicates that the small scale of the immediate market and isolation from cutting edge science in many areas prevents local biotechnology companies from benefiting from international alliances to develop or bring products to the market. The recommendation is that companies should be “assisted in negotiating and building relationships with multinationals, possibly in co-operation with larger domestic corporations and research organisations.”

Against this background, it becomes clear that a major source of external funding for biotechnology initiatives in the short to medium term will be government funding as well as international funding agencies. “It is nevertheless essential to provide the technology base which can be used as the launching pad for sustained growth in the biotechnology industry.

“We would see the CSIR-UP alliance as providing the platform to allow us to collaborate – rather than compete – in a meaningful way with other national role-players and international centres of expertise. The challenge is to establish a strong local biotechnology skills base and industry as a springboard to launch into the rest of the world,” she said.

The outputs from the initiative will be projects that will contribute in a number of different market areas, but with the focus on the health care and agro-food sectors. Specific contributions will be made to important issues facing the country such as vaccines, HIV/AIDS, malaria and crop production. A number of spin-off business ventures are also likely. These projects will significantly align the activities of the ACGT with the government strategy and business imperatives.

All research and development undertaken under the auspices of the Centre will be novel in nature, and there will be significant potential for the generation of Intellectual Property.