Picture: THINKSTOCK
TREATMENT: A main focus of the Institute for Environmental Biotechnology is the remediation of waste water. Picture: THINKSTOCK

THE danger for South Africa is that we are in competition with everyone in the world of biotechnology, says Janice Limson, head of Rhodes University’s biotechnology unit. "But the thing with innovation is that a hit can come from anywhere."

The university has a school of biochemistry, microbiology and biotechnology, and it has impressive credentials: "Rhodes was the home of biotechnology in South Africa, with the first postgraduate biotechnology (course) in the country."

However, the university "needs to create an enabling space to move into industry … There is a new generation of academics who want to innovate and do work that can make an impact … It’s pointless if we don’t engage in technology transfer and showcase biotechnology."

Her research focuses on sensors. "We create a special sensing solution for specific targets: an electrochemical sensor using biological recognition agents, such as antibodies and enzymes."

Glucose tests are a form of biosensor, used by patients to check their blood-sugar levels. "Biomedical sensors is a multibillion-dollar industry," she says.

Her group is working on breast cancer detectors. "(You) can send (the sensor solution) into the body and label the (cancer cells) in some way that can be targeted … and couple that with a drug. The sensor goes to the target and then delivers a drug at the same time," Dr Limson says.

She notes that developing biomedical technologies is difficult without a medical school. "But there is scope for fundamental research which can be readily applied," she says.

Tebello Nyokong, director of the Nanotechnology Innovation Centre hosted by the university, was once Dr Limson’s PhD supervisor. She is not concerned that her centre is so far from the nearest medical school: "We are not dealing with patients, so it is okay with me. The government does not allow researchers to touch patients."

Prof Nyokong — one of the top scientists in South Africa and winner of the 2009 L’Oreal-Unesco award for women in science — is working on a cancer treatment which is activated by light.

She focuses on skin cancer: "You apply the drug to the skin, and you just need sunlight," she says, adding that it is important to get through all the red tape as quickly as possible because HIV/AIDS "results in a lot of people dying from skin cancer".

Prof Nyokong echoes Dr Limson’s comments about the need to commercialise knowledge. "It’s delaying us … We have a patent officer, but sitting in Port Elizabeth. It doesn’t work like that."

Rhodes began teaching biotechnology in 1986. Its traditional strength is in environmental biotechnology, using bioprocesses to clean up the environment. This interest spun out into the Institute for Environmental Biotechnology, which director Keith Cowan describes as being part of the university but not paid for by Rhodes.

"We have specific focus areas: air pollution, water, ground pollution and rehabilitation," he says. "The fundamental driver is to develop biocatalysts: biological entities that allow us to remove contaminants (from water, for example) or turn a potential contaminant into a useful product."

He says the institute "bridges the gap between basic and applied research".

It is mainly funded through research grants, private funds and contracts, Prof Cowan says.

However, the remoteness of Grahamstown is a problem also when dealing with industry.

"It doesn’t make it easy for industry to approach us. We have to approach them. They are surprised to learn of the skills we have here," he says.

A main focus of the institute is the remediation of waste water, and Prof Cowan cites its Integrated Algae Ponding Systems, "which is ultimately using algae to treat dirty water".

He says the outcome is that one can, at a very low financial and energy cost, treat almost all water to form water that is competent enough to be reused in basic operations and processes.

"Companies incur penalties, according to the (waste) level in the water (they produce)," he says, adding that if they can reduce the level of contamination, they incur a smaller penalty.

The institute is also investigating the use of algae in biofuels, Prof Cowan says.