New R1.2bn biomedical unit a weapon against future epidemics

Technology is the best weapon against future pandemics, believes renowned scientist Tulio de Oliveira, a professor of bioinformatics at the School for Data Science and Computational Thinking at Stellenbosch University, who foresees 'an armed race between humans and pathogens”.

April 19, 2023

This was why research facilities, like the newly launched Biomedical Research Institute (BMRI) at Stellenbosch, mattered so much, he added. Housing a 600m squared biosafety level three laboratory, it’s the biggest in Africa, and also boasts a fully automated biorepository that can hold up to 5m samples.

De Oliveira said epidemics were likely to happen more frequently, but working to predict how and when they happened, through facilities like the BMRI, would go a long way to saving lives, reports News24.

'We’re in the age of epidemics. They are going to happen more often and in varied locations around the world. They will keep coming faster and faster. But we’re also in the age of big technological advancements. If we can act quickly, we can develop diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines.”

He said it was essential to bolster the research capacity of the global south, with many developing countries disproportionately affected by both disease and climate change.

'Many of the reason why we’re seeing epidemics relates to how we’re treating our environment. We are destroying precious resources where wild animals would have live before, so now they’re getting closer to the population. We are damaging our water resources, where bacteria are beginning to take over.”

De Oliveira used extensive E. coli recorded at beaches in Durban in December as an example, as well as the cholera outbreak in Malawi.

'In Africa and Asia, we’re seeing the largest cholera epidemics of fifty years, after extreme weather events,' he said. There was also influenza, especially with high levels of avian flu circulating, he added.

'The future of medical research will be to start predicting where epidemics will happen.”

This work would be carried out through a large global programme being launched later this month, the Climate Amplified Disease & Epidemics (Climade), he said.

The Climade consortium brings together global partners with long-term experience working with climate amplified epidemics and pathogen genomics.

The consortium will develop tools to predict, track and control diseases and epidemics in the world’s most affected countries. The data will be used to prevent new epidemics and pandemics that can be amplified by climate change, and will prepare field workers to treat them.

De Oliveira heads up the Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation (CERI), which was selected by the WHO as a partner-member of the first Covid-19 mRNA Vaccine Technology Transfer Hub, which is housed at the BMRI.

The R1.2bn biomedical research facility will focus on research that translate into discoveries to help improve the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of illnesses affecting Africa, said Professor Nico Gey van Pittius, vice dean: research and internationalisation at the university’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences.

He described the building as a '10-year dream that’s come to fruition”. The construction was carried out over four years amid disruptions due to the pandemic.

A robotic arm, -80°C temperatures, and 3.5m biomedical samples are just some of the features of the bio-repository, which houses some of the country’s top scientists, along with around 500 biomedical researchers and students. It also boasts the largest biosafety-level laboratory and a skills training lab with equipment worth more than R120m.

The only one of its kind in the southern hemisphere, the facility can store up to 3.5m samples at -80°C in an automated biological storage system, replacing the chest freezers previously used, and conserving energy while ensuring sample integrity.

The unit uses a robotic arm to select samples based on a unique QR code, ensuring that only the sample that is required is moved and that samples remain at the correct temperatures throughout the selection process. The system is also upgradeable to store an additional 3m to 5m samples, should the university outgrow it.

Scientists at the BMRI carry out research in various fields, including bioinformatics, tuberculosis, neuroscience and urology.

'Their research translates into discoveries to help improve the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of illnesses affecting the people of South Africa as well as the rest of Africa,' said Van Pittius.

The BMRI also houses numerous state-of-the-art laboratories, lecture and conference theatres equipped with the latest audio-visual technology, and large modern dissection halls that are custom-engineered to minimise formaldehyde exposure.

The BMRI was awarded a four-star rating from the Green Building Council of South Africa.

'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 to result in a next generation of successful scientists,' said Professor Elmi Muller, FMHS dean.

'This is a game changer for healthcare in Africa and is true evidence of using breakthrough science to improve lives.'

Please visit CLIMADE (Climate Amplified Diseases and Epidemics) website.

News date: 2023-04-19


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