Prof Erick Strauss, a specialist in chemical biology in the Department of Biochemistry in the Faculty of Science, have received a grant of R1.4 million over the next three years to explore a unique approach for the discovery of new antimicrobial agents.
The grant was awarded under the auspices of the Grand Challenge Africa (GC Africa) programme. The aim of the programme is to promote Africa-led scientific innovations to help countries achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, by supporting “big, bold, impactful, innovative ideas that have a potential for impact, scale and sustainability".
The GC Africa programme is implemented through the African Academy of Sciences' funding and programme implementation platform, the Alliance for Accelerating Science in Africa, in partnership with the African Union Development Agency and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Prof Strauss and his team are studying the interaction between white blood cells and pathogenic bacteria when the latter invade the human body. It seems that some bacteria have developed special defence mechanisms that protect them from being destroyed by the white blood cells, allowing infection to continue.
He explains: “We are trying to understand how these bacterial defence mechanisms work. If we can neutralise them in some way, it would allow the body to clear infections in a natural way. This will reduce the need for antibiotics, and the associated risk of antibiotic resistance developing".
The GC Africa grant has also allowed them to purchase an Opentrons OT-2 pipetting robot. This state-of-the-art piece of equipment is a key component for their strategy of discovering new inhibitors faster and cheaper.
The team consists of Dr Blake Balcomb and Dr Anton Hamann, both postdoctoral fellows, and PhD-student Tim Kotze. Both Balcomb and Hamann were trained as crystallographers as part of the Synchrotron Techniques for African Research and Technology (START) programme. This programme was funded through the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) of the United Kingdom's Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).
“In fact, it was the expertise built up through the START programme, and the promising results we obtained in our studies, that really made it possible to lodge a competitive application to the GC Africa Drug Discovery call," Prof Strauss concludes.
- Dr Gabriel Mashabela, a specialist scientist with the SAMRC Centre for TB Research and associated with the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, received a similar award for studying South African medicinal plants for potential new treatments against tuberculosis (TB).
On the photo above: The brand new, state-of-the-art Opentrons OT-2 pipetting robot has already been set up in Prof Erick Straus' lab in the Department of Biochemistry at Stellenbosch University. This piece of equipment will enable researchers to discover new inhibitors faster and cheaper, thereby making new drug discovery more accessible to South African researchers. Photo credit: Stefan Els