UP scientists scoop first and second prizes in Innovation Hub competition’s Biosciences category

Posted on January 14, 2021

University of Pretoria (UP) scientists Professor Tahir Pillay and Professor Celia Abolnik were part of teams that won prizes in the annual Gauteng Accelerator Programme (GAP) Innovation Competition, run by the Innovation Hub and Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. The prizes were awarded in the Biosciences category.

Prof Pillay, Head of the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS) Pathology and the Department of Chemical Pathology at the UP/NHLS, and his team won first prize for producing nanobodies directed against SARS-CoV2 proteins (e.g. spike protein). The research aims to develop both low-cost biosensors and rapid lateral flow immunoassays that work on saliva rather than the uncomfortable nasopharyngeal swabs currently used in COVID-19 tests.

Prof Abolnik, holder of the South African Research Chair Initiative in Poultry Health and Production in UP’s Department of Production Animal Studies at the Faculty of Veterinary Science, was part of a team, with Dr Martha O’Kennedy from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), that won second prize for their work on producing animal vaccines from tobacco plants that are quicker to mass produce. Plant-produced vaccines are more cost-effective than others currently on the market.

Now in its tenth year, the competition aims to help scientists and entrepreneurs to pursue commercially viable opportunities for cutting-edge bioscience technologies. The annual GAP Innovation Competition coincided with the recent Global Entrepreneurship Week. The aim of the competition was “to bridge this gap by providing seed funding and development support to entrepreneurs working on novel technologies which positively impact society,” explained Prof Pillay.

Entrants represent their fields in five categories: Bioscience, Medical, Township Economy, ICT, and Green.  Advocate Pieter Holl, CEO of the Innovation Hub, explained, These categories have been meticulously chosen to bring forward the best projects that South African entrepreneurs and scientists have to offer. They represent the unique challenges that need solutions in South Africa today.”

According to Prof Pillay, whose team entered under the umbrella of MikroMab Diagnostics, “Nanobodies are small protein molecules that are approximately twice the size of insulin and are derived from single chain antibodies.” The UP team produced a low-cost prototype lateral flow immunoassay rapid antigen test for SARS-CoV2. The business plan is to create a Good Manufacturing Practice-level [products produced for medical and pharmaceutical use need to be produced under stringent conditions of quality and control defined by GMP standards specified by the World Health Organisation and other international organisations] facility for the large-scale production of nanobodies under a UP licence and royalty system. 

“A further aspect of the plan is to produce lateral flow cassettes – like a COVID pregnancy type dipstick test – at a local facility to boost the economy and provide employment. It is estimated that about 10 semi-skilled workers can produce about 2 000 cassettes a day,” Prof Pillay said.

While the GAP innovation project is focused on SARS-CoV2, the long-term vision is to establish UP as an innovator for other nanobody-based tests across pathology and laboratory medicine and diagnostic imaging.

We are humbled and honoured to have been chosen by the panel from the very strong field of finalists. We are grateful for this funding, which comes at a critical time to ensure survival and growth of this start-up project,” Prof Pillay said.

Prof Abolnik and Dr O’Kennedy, co-founders of their future spin-off company, Antigenica, use tobacco plants to manufacture virus-like particle (VLP) vaccines that induce robust protective immune responses in animals. “Plant-produced VLP vaccines are highly scalable, more cost-effective to produce, and safer than other products currently on the market. These vaccines can be rapidly updated to match the latest outbreak strains, ensuring optimal protection and preventing the further spread of disease.”

They said: “The GAP Innovation Competition was an eye-opening experience for us; we are so excited about the potential of our company to make a difference in animal health and grow our local economy. The seed funding from our prize money will be put to good use in securing the licenses we require and getting our first vaccine to market as soon as possible.”

A panel selected finalists based on criteria including business strategy, use of technology, and societal impact. The teams will receive seed funding and incubation services with technical and business mentors and intellectual property lawyers, as well as access to the Innovation Hub’s network of industry and government partners.

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