Big break for biotech in SA

 South Africa's biotechnology capability is growing steadily
South Africa’s biotechnology capability is
growing steadily. (Image: BioPad)

 

The Bio2Biz conference, held at the Durban International Convention Centre at the end of September 2009, unpacked new, innovative ways in which biotechnology and business can work together.

About 700 delegates attended the four-day event, now in its sixth year. Since its inception in 2004 the conference has rotated between KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and the Western Cape provinces.

A diverse range of discussion topics was on offer, from drug discovery and development, women in the biotechnology business, stem cell technology and South African biotechnology start-ups, to bioprospecting and indigenous knowledge systems, among others.

Bioprospecting is the scientific search, based on traditional healing and biodiversity, for microrganisms, animal and plant species that could be a valuable source of medicinal drugs.

Bio2Biz 2009 coincided with an exhibition of the latest in biotechnology developments. Participating exhibitors included the Department of Science and Technology; filtration and instrumentation specialist Microsep; laboratory equipment supplier Davies Diagnostics; the Innovation Fund, a technological campaigner; and a host of other biotechnology-related companies.

Biotechnology on the rise

The conference was organised by a group of six partners: the Innovation Fund, eGoli Bio, BioPad, the Cape Biotech Trust, LIFElab and PlantBio. The latter four are designated biotechnology innovation centres, set up under government’s National Biotechnology Strategy, which was adopted by Cabinet in 2001.

“Over the past five years, [the innovation centres] have supported the establishment of 30 new start-up biotechnology companies,” said Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor, speaking at the conference.

Research and intellectual property generated by South African innovators have sustained the new companies, said Pandor, adding that more than 1 000 research jobs have been created and that each year sees more innovative new products and services springing from the country’s creative minds.

“We want to make South Africa one of the top 10 nations in the world in terms of the pharmaceutical, nutraceutical, flavour, fragrance and biopesticide industries by 2018,” she affirmed.

“Already, we have initiated four bioprospecting and product development flagship projects, and registered a Bachelor of Indigenous Knowledge Systems degree, the first of its kind in the world.”

Indigenous knowledge is beneficial for society because it includes natural treatments that have been used successfully for hundreds of years to treat a range of ailments. Because of the potential for business opportunities offering new healthcare products and services, it can also contribute to job creation.

Potential in biotechnology

Guest speaker Dennis Liotta, professor of organic chemistry at Atlanta’s Emory University, was adamant that South Africa had all the necessary elements to be competitive in international pharmaceutical development in its own right.

“There is huge potential for the South African biotechnology industry,” said Liotta at the conference’s opening session. “There are strong research scientists, government research councils, a traditional knowledge system and biodiversity.”

Liotta, also the inventor of a number of anti-viral drugs, said that the South African biotechnology industry would achieve this by capitalising on its strengths and forging new partnerships to boost areas where skill or expertise is lacking.

He is also the director of the South Africa Drug Discovery Programme, an initiative of Emory’s Global Health Institute. This programme aims to furnish African scientists with crucial skills in early drug discovery – a situation that, according to Emory, needs urgent attention.

The talented scientists selected for the programme have access to top academic expertise from Emory. As funding is always a challenge in drug development, they learn how to evolve their ideas into a package that will attract the right investors. In this way they can successfully translate their research into effective healthcare products.

Once training is complete, the graduates are placed in relevant positions in their own countries.

This is a positive sign for developing African nations. These days big pharmaceutical companies focus their attention on markets in the developed world, said Liotta, where they are sure to recoup the huge amounts poured into research and development. Developing nations are thus left out in the cold, as state-of-the-art drugs are simply not made available.

“[Pharmaceutical giants] only focus on these needs when put under moral political pressure,” commented Liotta.

Traditional remedy to fight HIV/Aids

One of the highlights at Bio2Biz 2009 was a presentation by Southern African Network for Biosciences (Sanbio) director Luke Mumba, which featured a traditional remedy thought to have potential in the fight against HIV and Aids.

The treatment is currently under scrutiny by scientists from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. The traditional healer who developed the remedy claims it can cure HIV and Aids, and tests have shown that at least one plant used in the drink could possibly be as effective as the antiretroviral Indinavir, manufactured by Merck.

The names of the plants are as yet a secret. Sanbio is currently seeking permission to take the active ingredients, in capsule form, to clinical trial in Southern Africa.