Africa's Most Sophisticated Biomedical Research Centre Opens in South Africa

CAPE TOWN - The most advanced biomedical research centre on the African continent has opened in South Africa, boasting state-of-the-art research and training facilities.

Medical Innovation 18/04/2023 • Kerry Cullinan

Medical technologist Candice Snyders preparing samples for analysis at the BMRI facility in South Africa

Stellenbosch University’s Biomedical Research Institute (BMRI) houses over 500 researchers who are examining the genetic and biomolecular basis for diseases afflicting Africans – including Professor Tuilo De Oliveira, renowned for decoding the COVID-19 variant, Omicron.

De OliveiraÂ’s Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation (CERI) is one of only two specialised genomic facilities on the African continent, the other being Christian HappiÂ’s African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases at RedeemerÂ’s University in Nigeria.

'Our mandate on the continent from the Africa CDC is to support other African countries with identifying and characterising pathogens, and we do that – dozens and dozens of pathogens, many of them that you may not have ever heard,' De Oliveira told the media launch.

'For example, we sent a team to Malawi last week to help characterise their explosive cholera outbreak. We have a team going to Mozambique to do a similar thing. We also receive samples from other countries in Africa and produce genomes that can better characterise the pathogens because if you can characterise the pathogen, you can develop the diagnostics, you can develop the therapeutics and you can develop a vaccine.”

Aside from providing genomic sequencing for 26 African countries in the past year, CERI has had is running an African genomics Africa fellowship, and has trained 320 fellows so far to take the technology back to their own countries.

Prof Tulio De Oliveira, who decoded Omicron, has a research unit at BMRI.

De Oliveira is one of only 20 scientists represented on the World Health OrganisationÂ’s virus evolution committee that helps to guide the global response to new virus threats as they evolve.

'Unfortunately, that’s what viruses do – evolve. We saw that with COVID evolving a lot. We see how HIV evolved to generate drug resistance. We are now very worried about the evolution of the the avian pathogenic strain of H5N1 that’s decimating the bird populations around the world,' says De Oliveira. 'Pathogens don’t respect borders.”

The BMRI cost around $66-million, was financed primarily by the university itself, and took four years to build as the pandemic slowed construction, said vice-dean Professor Nico Gey van Pittius.

'Fifty percent of the African continent is under the age of 25. We want to capacitate the future scientists. This is where the future Nobel Laureates will come from,' said van Pittius.

Fingerprick TB test

Prof Novel Chegou

For Professor Novel Chegou, who has spent 18 years at the university from when he was an honours student to his current position as a professor in molecular biology and human genetics, the beauty of the facility is that it enables conversations between scientists in different disciplines.

'This building was designed with collaboration in mind. ItÂ’s easy to collaborate. I can go and talk to the microbiology people. I can track down Tulio and bounce some ideas off him. There are all these top scientists. If youÂ’re a younger person, youÂ’re not really limited to work with with your supervisor,' says Chegou.

In contrast, in the past scientists were crammed four people to an office, even if you were a full professor, Chegou remembers.

One of the most exciting prospects for BMRI is the fingerprick blood test for tuberculosis that Chegou and his team are testing in clinical trials – something that has developed as a result of a 'huge collaborative effort”, he adds.

Tuberculosis is the most common – and deadliest – infectious disease in South Africa, but testing for it isn’t that easy, particularly if it is outside the lungs.

Another exciting initiative is a project examining how an active ingredient in turmeric called curcumin might play a role in mitigating ParkinsonÂ’s Disease.

Prof Soraya Bardien

'Around one percent of the global population over the age of 60 suffers from ParkinsonÂ’s Disease,' says Professor Soraya Bardien, who heads the only research project on the disease in the country.

'Unfortunately, the prevalence in South Africa is not known because studies have been done on that. What is known is that ParkinsonÂ’s is the fastest growing neurological disorder worldwide,' adds Bardien.

'Our research focus is twofold. One, we work on the genetic causes of the disease and we use genetic and genomic approaches to identify cases in South African individuals with Parkinson’s disease. And then secondly, we use therapeutic approaches on curcumin.' While results are 'years away”, curcumin has proven to be a 'powerful antioxidant' acting against cell death in the laboratory.

Another pressing problem is the rise of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases in South Africa, which are projected to rise exponentially over the next few decades.

Prof Faadiel Essop

'ThereÂ’s a paucity of work that weÂ’ve studied our own populations,' says Professor Faadiel Essop heads the Centre for Cardio-metabolic Research in Africa (CARMA).

But one of his concerns is how cardio-metabolic diseases are interacting with HIV. Souh Africa has the largest HIV burden globally, and people with the virus are living longer but also developing cardio-metabolic diseases related to a host of factors including diet and the side effects of antiretroviral drugs.

CARMA is conducting a longitudinal study of people living with HIV in a community called Worcester examining contributing factors to cardio-metabolic diseases, such as changes in the bad cholesterol (LDL), obesity, smoking, and the side effects of ARVs.

Virtual reality

The Biomedical Research Institute was launched this week in Cape Town.

During a tour of BMRI, teams of neurosurgeon registrars are doing simulated laparoscopic neck surgeries on cadavers while supervised by Professor Ian Vlok in the SunSkill facility, a specialist facility for training surgeons.

In the psychiatry laboratory, students hope that they will be able to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, using virtual reality to understand how stress hormone cortisol is released and whether they can find a way to stop this.

The largest biosafety level three laboratory enables research on a wide variety of pathogens, while a biorepository can store 3.5 million samples in temperatures of -80 degrees C.

Bioinformatics students are coding, a staff member is packing away bones.

'The investment in the BMRI will allow significant human capacity development through training some of the best students from the continent and exposing them to extensive national and international research networks,' says Medical Dean Professor Elmi Muller.

'The BMRI will be a game changer for healthcare in Africa and is true evidence of using breakthrough science to improve lives.”

News date: 2023-04-18


KRISP has been created by the coordinated effort of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) and the South African Medical Research Countil (SAMRC).

Location: K-RITH Tower Building
Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine, UKZN
719 Umbilo Road, Durban, South Africa.
Director: Prof. Tulio de Oliveira