Not only has the University of Pretoria (UP) established the UP Biodiscovery Centre, but it has also signed a contract of significant monetary value to establish the first research chair in the Biodiscovery Centre.
The agreement was cemented with the official signing ceremony in May 2023 between Professor Barend Erasmus, Dean of the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, Jeff Robinson, CEO and Chairman of M2Bio Sciences, and Dr Elmar de Wet, CEO of Enterprises University of Pretoria (EUP).
The UP Biodiscovery Centre, led by Professor Vinesh Maharaj, NAS Deputy Dean for Research and Postgraduate Education and a renowned bio prospector, will conduct natural product research and development for commercial purposes. The M2Bio Sciences Research Chair will conduct research focused on science and evidence-backed premium health and wellness products over the next four years. An integral part of the research is to use artificial intelligence (AI) for the discovery of natural product lead compounds that can be developed as pharmaceutical and food ingredients.
“We need to emphasise the value of artificial intelligence (AI) in African research. It is important to digitise the great research and developments on the continent. Although I am not a scientist, I have a big passion for science,” Robinson stated at the event.
He also believes that product development must be backed by scientific research – there must be concrete evidence for our claims. “There is so much potential and talent in South Africa; I am wondering why there are not more companies cooperating with universities to do research.”
Prof Erasmus echoed these sentiments, saying, “There are three important elements of partnerships, especially evident in today’s agreement: the nature, aspirations, and the vision of the people involved in this partnership. The three partners, UP/NAS, M2Bio Sciences and Enterprises UP, responded well to this great opportunity. It is important to note that NAS has many more unique value propositions as our diversity, ranging from the basic sciences to the agricultural sciences, encompasses the whole (agricultural) value chain.”
Prof Maharaj added that the partnership brings industry and academia closer and contributes to creating a more significant impact on society through translational and transdisciplinary research.
In his final remarks, Robinson said M2Bio Sciences was excited to work with Prof Maharaj, with his stellar knowledge, and that this translational research ties in with the University’s transdisciplinary research and is guided by society’s needs.
Dr De Wet, CEO of UP Enterprises, concluded the event by stating, “The world has more than enough problems, and our scientists, in partnership with industry, can facilitate the solutions and make it happen.”
Front: Prof Barend Erasmus (Dean: Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences), Mr Jeff Robinson (CEO and Chairman: M2Bio Sciences) and Dr Elmar de Wet (CEO: Enterprises UP). Back: Mrs Nicola Royce (Managing Director: M2Biome), Prof Vinesh Maharaj (Deputy Dean: Research and Postgraduate Studies and Leader: UP Biodiscovery Centre), Mr Ze-Ev Krein (Scientific Advisory board Chairman: M2Bio Sciences) and Mr Jaco Snyman (Research Solutions Business Manager Enterprises UP).
Why a Biodiscovery Centre at UP?
Due to its geographical position, South Africa is reported to be the third most biologically diverse country in the world. Approximately 10% of the world’s known species and 15% of known coastal and marine species are found in South Africa. Moreover, South Africa comprises nine unique vegetation types, of which three have been declared global biodiversity hotspots. The country also has a long tradition of medicinal use of plants. It is estimated that at least 70% of all South Africans consult one of the more than 200 000 traditional healers in the country. As a result, biodiscovery and product development initiatives will offer South Africa an opportunity to grow its economy through the pharmaceutical, agricultural, cosmeceutical and food industries.
The University of Pretoria is actively involved in the discovery of natural products that can be developed as pharmaceuticals, herbal medicines, cosmetics and veterinary products based on South Africa’s biodiversity and indigenous knowledge/traditional knowledge. Research is conducted at various departments contributing to multiple aspects of the biodiscovery value chain.
The research includes the systematic investigation of 24 000 indigenous plants as part of a long-term project aimed at discovering drugs, nutraceuticals and cosmeceuticals from South Africa’s indigenous plants with a focus on HIV, malaria, TB, neglected tropical diseases, cancer and diabetes. This is done in collaborative programmes with holders of indigenous knowledge, such as traditional health practitioners. The UP Biodiscovery Centre, with the support of various other UP stakeholders, is also a key team member of the South African Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) Biodiscovery Platform (African Traditional Medicines, Nutraceuticals and Cosmeceuticals) and manages the University of Pretoria research component.
The University is assisting the Department of Environmental Affairs in implementing the biodiscovery component of the National Environmental and Marine Biodiversity Act (NEMBA) by creating a national repository of natural products. The Department of Chemistry at the University is now increasing and diversifying its natural product repository, building its synthetic capacity and skills. This will ultimately lead to chemistry’s leading role in the South African bio-economy as natural product chemistry is a critical resource for a successful biodiscovery programme.
Technology platform of the Biodiscovery Centre
A platform for creating a natural product library for high throughput screening of samples has been established. The primary platform has thus been completed and continues to grow daily. Over 11 000 dry ground plant samples collected from various parts of the country are stored, and approximately 5 000 extracts and their semi-purified fractions have been created to date and stored at -20°C. Such a library provides access to many South African plant samples opening the possibilities for novel biodiscovery findings.
A digital, searchable database is also under development. It will allow those working in the centre to rapidly access and mine the information on the plants, their extracts, fractions, and isolated compounds. Various analytical chemistry laboratory systems support daily analyses on samples, including UPLC QTOF MS/MS, that provide sufficient biological efficacy through screening programmes leading to chemical fingerprinting of the samples. Various databases such as Dictionary of Natural Products, Waters UNIFI™, Metlin/Metfusion, and Chemspider are used in this process. In addition, targeted purification of the lead compounds is undertaken by semi-preparatory HPLC MS/UV providing sufficient quantities of pure compounds for structure elucidation by NMR.