Pioneering research requires financial support and grants by donors such as the Wilhelm Frank Trust, which make an enormous contribution to researchers’ ability to explore and develop research opportunities.
This was the case in the development of affordable, disease-specific bacterial and viral biosensors by researchers at Stellenbosch University (SU). These biosensors are used to track down the indicators of certain diseases, such as the occurrence of the protein serum amyloid A (SAA). This protein increases significantly when there is inflammation in the body and can indicate the presence of cancer.
The idea of developing biosensors originated about five years ago after a discussion between Prof Willie Perold of the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering and Prof Leon Dicks of the Department of Microbiology. Funds for postgraduate bursaries, bio-recognition elements and very sophisticated apparatus were required to realise the idea, however.
Enter the Wilhelm Frank Trust. The Trust was established in terms of the will of the late Norman Frank, a lover of nature with an interest in engineering-related development in South Africa, and has been providing bursaries for under and postgraduate training in Science and Engineering since 2002. The value of the Trust’s donations to SU has already amounted to more than R21 million.
In 2017 and 2018, the grant made by the Trust enabled the researchers to:
allocate postgraduate bursaries to three postgraduate students;
obtain bio-recognition elements and manufacture bio-convertors (inkjet and electrospin technology) onto which bio-recognition elements can be attached; and
upgrade the manufacturing laboratory.
“Our apparatus for depositing very thin layers on substrates was very old and urgently had to be serviced,” explains Prof Perold.
“With the funds, we could buy new targets – different metals – for the dispensers, have the vacuum pumps for the dispensers and evaporator serviced and replace the water purification system. These upgrades are unbelievably important and benefit a wide variety of projects.”
Prof Perold summarises the outcomes of the grant as follows: “We now know that we can implement various biosensors very successfully and our nanolaboratory is much more functional. We have a sustainable group of highly gifted students who are conducting research with us and we have three new patents that can potentially be commercialised.”
According to him, there is also a multiplying effect or, in other words, there are more outcomes than they had hoped for. This includes the development of their own electrospinner to produce customised nanofibres and amendments to the inkjet printer to print sensors on paper.
“The grant has therefore made an incredibly big contribution to our research,” he adds.
One of the interdisciplinary projects that Prof Perold is working on together with a specialist in the morphology of blood cells, Prof Resia Pretorius of the Department of Physiological Sciences in the Faculty of Science, is a nano-electronic biosensor that will use only one drop of blood to diagnose cancer more rapidly and cheaply than current methods do.
The project is investigating the occurrence of SAA, which increases significantly in the presence of inflammation in the body.
Prof Perold explains as follows in the article Nuwe biosensor vir vroeë opsporing van kanker (New biosensor for early detection of cancer) that appeared on the SU website last year: “With our biosensor, we aim to pick up the onset of inflammation during the early stages by detecting SAA in the blood sample. Long before cancer manifests, it should therefore be able to be detected through high levels of SAA that ‘tell’ on it.
“The process of developing the small electronic device is simple. We use a specific material, such as paper or electrospin nanofibres, to which we attach biorecognition elements like SAA antibodies. The fibres are then connected to an electronic circuit that measures resistance. The antibodies bind only with the protein (SAA) that we want to pick up. Consequently, if a drop of blood is added to the sensor and SAA is present in the blood, binding between the antibodies and the SAA takes place. This binding will result in a change in the electronic circuit, which indicates the presence of inflammation.”
The project leaders are now on the lookout for further funding to develop the prototype.