By Siboniso Mngadi, Sunday Tribune. WITH a new, state-of-the-art laboratory at the University of KwaZulu-Natal's (UKZN) medical school, Durban can now produce some of the best, high-quality data in DNA sequencing without having to send it out of the province or to other countries.
Professor Tulio de Oliveira and PhD fellow Zandile Sibisi work at the DNA sequencing machine at the KZN Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform (Krisp) centre. Picture: ZANELE ZULU
UKZN and Technology Innovation Agency signed an agreement for the establishment of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform (Krisp) led by Professor Tulio de Oliveira, who is an expert on HIV genetic data and bioinformatics software development.
De Oliveira said the vision of Krisp was to produce and analyse omics (genomics, proteomics or metabolomics) data at the same speed and quality as the top centres in the world.
The facility would produce cutting-edge research, support industrial development and capacitate the next generation of scientists, he said.
The laboratory has about 35 scientists working in it. In terms of the agreement, Technology Innovation Agency is providing R5 million a year for the facility.
The centre will assist in overcoming a backlog in DNA testing for pathogens, such as HIV and TB, and diseases, such as cancer and Alzheimer's.
De Oliveira said a critical function of Krisp would be to enable and facilitate access to genomics, epigenetics and bioinformatics technology to a broader community of users who might not otherwise pursue these technologies or use alternative international resources.
Local funding was the way to drive a scientific agenda that benefited the country, he said, adding that foreign countries had their own scientific agendas which might not be suitable for South Africa.
'It was important for the country to build this cutting-edge scientific structure because now we can find scientific solutions that would have biggest impact on our economy, health and well-being of people.'
Krisp was also looking for opportunities to collaborate with key stakeholders and funders to identify new flagship programmes that could generate similar scientific and capacity building output, he said.
'We want to create a professionally run and accredited service component that is available for academic, commercial and industrial clients..'
'We are passionate about training and capacity building. For example, in the past three years, we have organised 16 workshops during which 1150 individuals were trained. As part of Krisp, we will continue and expand our training programme. I am glad to see this has happened and we will work hard to become a success story.'
Among those who were part of Krisp was postgraduate student Zandile Sibisi, 29, from KwaMashu. Sibisi is studying towards her PhD in virology after completing several qualifications in health sciences.
'When I completed matric my parents had no money to support my studies. I had to pay my way through working at the retail shops where I was paid on commission,' she said.
Pursuing her postgraduate studies at UKZN was unique and afforded her an exclusive opportunity compared to other institutions, she said.
She was inspired by working with experts such as De Oliviera. 'With Krisp facilities, we have enough space to do research because you can't do it in a vacuum lab. We have advanced resources here. I have mastered all the specia- lities, I can do the DNA test from blood extraction to analysis of result.'
The centre has attracted scientists from other provinces and academics who had left Durban but returned to the city. One is Dr Veron Ramsuran, an expert in genetics, who was at the National Institutes of Health and Harvard in the US. He said the centre was world-class.
'We have similar facilities and equipment; basically the stuff we did there can be done here. We have an added advantage, we have access to samples more easily than in the US,' Ramsuran said.