Seeding Labs – A catalytic opportunity to drive discovery

The discovery by a Harvard molecular biology doctoral student of troves of unused and underused scientific laboratory equipment in a university basement was the impetus behind a project which has today brought equipment worth over US$30 million to 63 institutions in 33 countries around the world.

Nina Dudnik, the original thinker behind the Seeding Labs concept said when she found the equipment, she realised that someone, somewhere could make good use of it, with the potential to conduct cutting-edge research.

“The mission of Seeding Labs, broadly, is about ensuring that talented people wherever they are in the world have the opportunity to drive discovery,” Dudnik told University World News.

The Instrumental Access programme of Seeding Labs, a non-profit organisation based in Boston, connects universities and research institutes in developing countries with high-quality surplus lab equipment provided by donors. The organisation celebrated its 10-year anniversary earlier this year.

Equipment as catalyst

“We start with the equipment because it’s a catalyst. We have seen this over the years – it catalyses transformation across institutions of science,” she said.

According to Dudnik, one or two years after receiving equipment, the curriculum of the institution tends to change and improve because hands-on training of students improves.

“Masters and PhD students can finish their dissertations, lecturers can complete their research that was previously stuck and they don’t have to leave their country to conduct their analysis,” said Dudnik.

She said the equipment also gives researchers the infrastructure to expand collaborations both at home and abroad.

“We have seen this turning into new funding for research. And what we are seeing, which is very exciting now, are the actual products coming out of research that’s being done, including a few that have provisional patents,” she said.

Winning grants

Dr Fabrice Boyom, an analytical biochemist, who works on natural products and drug discovery at the University of Yaoundé I in Cameroon is a case in point. Since receiving equipment from Seeding Labs, he has won two international grants totalling US$170,000.

At Yaoundé I, Boyom and his team have been working to come up with a drug capable of combating toxoplasmosis – an infection resulting from the parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, for which there is currently no effective treatment. As much as 70% of Cameroonian women of childbearing age carry the parasite, and the infection can be devastating to pregnant women.

Boyom has been able to use the equipment to screen a library of antimalarial compounds against toxoplasmosis and identify several hits that can be said to be potential drug compounds against the diseases.

According to Dudnik, the project has been able to provide him with more equipment to scale up his work.

As a result, more than 800 undergraduate students in biochemistry courses get hands-on experience using equipment from Seeding Labs. Three university departments at Yaoundé I used instruments to outfit five research labs and two teaching labs.

Zimbabwean technology

After benefiting from Seeding Labs equipment, Professor Enoch Jonathan, executive dean of the School of Natural Science and Mathematics and his team at Chinhoyi University in Zimbabwe, have filed a patent for a simple, cost-effective technology that helps determine when cattle are ready to breed.

The tool is an alternative to a high-tech, expensive technology replete with bluetooth capabilities, devised by scientists in Ireland but financially out of reach for small farmers in Southern Africa.

The tool resulted in the Zimbabwean government choosing the university as a flagship partner to restock cattle herds through artificial insemination, said Dudnik.

“The equipment that we provide is for biological and chemical sciences, and that can be for broad application, we don’t dictate what kind of science people are doing, the whole thing is about making sure that people have the ability to pursue their priorities because scientists working in the frontlines of their communities know their problems best,” she told University World News.

Electrical engineering pilot

Dudnik said the equipment that they are providing now can span agricultural projects, environmental science, and even alternative energy and medical research. As yet the project has not been able to address needs in physics and engineering, but there is a pilot programme planned for this year in electrical engineering.

“We will see how that works,” she said.

Equipment and expertise for Seeding Labs comes from 140 partners who include research and development companies and pharmaceutical companies. Dudnik hopes for a day when providers of scientific equipment will also come from Africa.

“It would be very interesting to have African countries mobilising surplus assets here,” she said on the sidelines of the Next Einstein Forum held in Rwanda earlier this year.

However, the greatest need for Seeding Labs equipment comes from Africa, she said, with most applications coming from Nigeria.

“The greatest need for equipment is for modern biology and molecular biology. These are areas you cannot research without appropriate instrumentation,” Dudnik said, adding there is a lot that can be done in chemistry, mathematics or physics without equipment.

To mark a decade of empowering global scientists, in March Seeding Labs made 16 awards of equipment to outstanding research laboratories in developing countries around the world.

These included: Maratha Mandal’s NGH Institute of Dental Sciences and Research Centre, India; Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia, Peru; United States International University-Africa, Kenya; Mount Kenya University, Kenya; Sokoine University of Agriculture, Tanzania; Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Ghana; Lead City University, Nigeria; Université d’Abomey-Calavi, Benin; University of Cape Coast, Ghana; two University of Ibadan (Nigeria) departments – Veterinary Pharmacology and Toxicology and Zoology; University of Ilorin, Nigeria; University of Liberia, Liberia; Lupane State University, Zimbabwe; Malawi University of Science and Technology and the University of Namibia.

Looking forward

Dudnik said the programme is seeking in the future to offer grant-writing training for scientists and a new initiative to bring African scientists to the United States and vice versa is also in the pipeline.

Because researchers from different parts of the world often struggle to keep their equipment in good condition, a new Telescience online platform that provides teaching and training to scientists in developing countries, supported by Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, a leading science and technology company, was started in February.

“Telescience provides tips, tricks and hacks developed by scientists to keep their equipment running, and share online through videos,” said Dudnik.

* Seeding Labs’ Instrumental Access programme current call for applications closes on 27 July 2018 and another will open in September. The latest call now makes Ethiopia, Chile, Poland and Uruguay eligible.