New biomedical institute a ‘game changer’ for healthcare

The cutting-edge Biomedical Research Institute (BMRI) unveiled by Stellenbosch University (SU) near Cape Town shows that the African continent is perfectly willing and able to help, not just itself, but the rest of humanity as well, says Professor Nico Gey van Pittius, the vice dean of research and internationalisation at SU’s faculty of medicine and health sciences (FMHS).

He was speaking to University World News after an open day at the new BMRI complex on 15 April 2023, which saw hundreds of visitors taking hourly guided tours of its facilities.

The BMRI houses more than 500 biomedical researchers and students, including some of the world’s foremost bioinformatics, tuberculosis (TB), neuroscience and urology scientists.

The research emanating from the facility has a decidedly African focus and seeks to understand the genetic and biomolecular basis of diseases afflicting South Africa and the rest of the African continent.

“Africa has unique problems and health challenges. It bears the brunt of infectious diseases and has alarmingly rising levels of non-communicable diseases and a growing incidence of mental health challenges. These colliding and interacting epidemics put our health systems under severe strain and adversely affect our people’s quality of life,” according to SU.

Developing homegrown solutions

“Our population is unique, and our circumstances are different from the rest of the world – with both factors impacting on human health. We have the largest genetic diversity in the world and very high levels of stress in some of our countries. At the same time, we have challenges with infrastructure and difficulties in reaching deep rural areas.

“Also, around half of Africa’s population is younger than 25. Compare that to the ageing populations of China, the United States and Europe. Obviously, our health problems are going to be different.

“So, we cannot just take solutions developed in other countries and apply them in Africa. Nor can we have ‘parachute research’ anymore. We must look after ourselves and collaborate with the rest of the world as equitable partners. That’s the idea behind the BMRI.

“We started planning in 2012 by asking our scientists what needed to be done to take the biomedical sciences forward. They came to the table with ideas, which we benchmarked against places like the Janelia Research Campus in the US and the Francis Crick Institute in the United Kingdom.

“Everything crystalised into ideas that we localised for our context to take us to the next level, and that’s what we have today – a world-class biomedical research complex on a par with the best in the world,” according to SU’s statement about the institute.

Southern hemisphere leader

The BMRI is “unparalleled, not only on the African continent but the entire southern hemisphere”, in terms of its facilities and extensive research capacity, the university added in its release.

Its molecular biology, human genetics and medical physiology laboratories are widely recognised for their world-class research on high-priority conditions in Africa, such as TB, HIV/AIDS, cardiovascular disease, reproductive immunology, and genetic and neuropsychiatric disorders.

Construction of the ZAR1.2 billion (about US$66 million) facility started in 2018 and was completed in February 2023, despite major challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Funding was secured from the SU Council, the faculty and South Africa’s Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET).

“It’s all national funding, which is significant. It shows that we are investing in ourselves and our own future. We see the importance of facing our challenges and the value this facility can add,” SU Rector and Vice-Chancellor Professor Wim de Villiers said.

“Scientists at the BMRI conduct research that translates into discoveries that help improve the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of illnesses affecting the people of South Africa and the rest of our continent. But the rest of humanity also stands to gain because diseases don’t know borders, as we saw with COVID-19,” Gey van Pittius said.

World-class laboratories

On 15 April, University World News was shown around the expansive facility by Dr Bih H Chendi, a postdoctoral research fellow and laboratory coordinator in the TB biomarker research group at SU, attached to the lab of Prof Novel Chegou.

“The BMRI building philosophy has research at the heart of its design, with offices on the outermost boundaries of the building and laboratories within the centre,” she explained.

“This design allows for precise temperature control of the laboratories, which is essential to ensuring the optimal function of our equipment and experiments.”

The labs are divided into sections consisting of a general working area where routine lab work takes place and dedicated specialist laboratories for specialised procedures involving trained technical expertise and special equipment.

“These laboratories are widely recognised for their world-class research on high-priority conditions in Africa, such as tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, cardiovascular disease, reproductive immunology as well as genetic and neuropsychiatric disorders,” Chendi continued as we went up the stairs, before she swiped us through locked doors with her access card and took us down a long passage.

As we reached the end of the corridor, Chendi stopped, and said with a smile: “This is the sequencing room, the heart of the work of our Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation (CERI), where new variants of COVID were discovered.”

A ‘shift in paradigm’

She pointed to a laboratory behind floor-to-ceiling glass housing the largest genomics facility in Africa. CERI’s Professor Tulio de Oliveira led the team of scientists that confirmed the discovery of the Beta variant of the COVID virus in January 2021 and the Omicron variant in November of the same year.

Time magazine included him and Dr Sikhulile Moyo, an SU alumnus and co-leader of the team, in its list of the 100 most influential people of 2022 for the discovery of Omicron. Moyo serves as laboratory director of the Botswana-Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership.

“It was a transformational moment and a shift in paradigm – one that, for me, symbolised that excellence in science can originate in Africa,” John Nkengasong, Global AIDS Coordinator in the administration of US President Joe Biden, wrote in Time last year.

This theme was taken up by SU’s FMHS Dean, Professor Elmi Muller last week in Stellenbosch University’s media release about its new research institute.

“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,” she said.

Her deputy for research and internationalisation, Professor Nico Gey van Pittius, told University World News that special funding had been secured to bring hundreds of postgraduate students and researchers from the rest of Africa to the BMRI.

“Just this past week, we had 45 colleagues from elsewhere on our continent here for training, and this is ongoing. We have a responsibility to build capacity on our continent because this is where the world’s next generation of researchers and policymakers will come from, since Africa has the youngest population in the world.”

From Cameroon to Oslo

Chendi, 32, received her PhD from the University of Oslo last month (March).

The journey that took her to Norway started when she was awarded the Stellenbosch University Africa Collaboration Grant after completing her masters degree at the Catholic University of Central Africa in Cameroon.

She came to Stellenbosch on a six-month exchange programme, connected with the Immunology Research Group of the Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics, headed by Professor Gerhard Walzl, in SU’s department of biomedical sciences, and expressed an interest in pursuing a PhD.

“There was existing collaboration between Stellenbosch and the University of Oslo. This provided me with the opportunity to do my PhD with the University of Oslo in Norway and most of my research work here in South Africa.

"There is a high incidence of TB in South Africa, which makes it a good place for research, and I am learning a lot at SU, which I hope to use to help strengthen research development in Africa,” she explained.

The BMRI office spaces feature an open-plan design to facilitate open dialogue and active collaboration between staff and students across disciplines and at various levels of their academic careers. The aim is to build competent and innovative future scientific leaders who embrace challenge and value teamwork to develop out-of-the box solutions that catalyse research for impact.

“Notice the large white panels and seating areas,” Chendi said as we turned a corner and walked down another shiny hallway.

“Similar to the open-plan office design, these spaces were intentionally incorporated into the design of the BMRI to promote brainstorming, networking, debate and creativity and create a space for transformative teaching and learning.”

Excellence in TB research

SU’s FMHS is particularly strong in TB research. It was awarded a Centre of Excellence in Biomedical TB Research status by South Africa’s Department of Science and Innovation and National Research Foundation in 2003.

In addition, its Desmond Tutu TB Centre received a World Health Organization prize for pioneering work on childhood TB in 2012. It has also been housing the South African Medical Research Council’s Centre for Tuberculosis Research since 2014.

Genomics researchers at the BMRI are investigating the epidemiology and evolution of the bacteria that causes TB in terms of outbreak investigations, development of drug resistance and discovering novel drug-resistance causing mutations.

“I graduated in Norway last month. Now I am in South Africa to continue my research and build my career in the field of TB biomarker discovery. We are looking for host markers of TB that could be used for early screening and early detection of the disease, leading to early treatment initiation for patients, ultimately limiting transmission,” Chendi said.

“There are diagnostic tools for TB, but they have limitations. We need more accurate and rapid diagnostic and screening tests. An affordable point-of-care test, which could be used in rural areas with easy access for quicker diagnosis, would be great for our continent.

Chendi concurs: “I think our work could have a great impact, especially on people suffering from TB. The disease affects millions of lives worldwide, especially in Africa, where we are crippled with HIV-coinfection. I hope I get the opportunity to extend my work to my home country, Cameroon, and transfer the knowledge I am gaining in building research capacity”.

This articles was updated on 20 April.