Unique collaboration leads to establishment of international research group in polymer separation

​The Leibniz-Institute for Polymer Research (IPF) in Dresden, Germany, and the Department of Chemistry and Polymer Science at Stellenbosch University (SU) have established a joint IPF-SU research group in polymer separation.

The 20-member group, which now spans across Africa and Europe, is led by Prof. Albena Lederer, head of the Centre for Macromolecular Structure Analysis in the Institute for Macromolecular Chemistry at IPF Dresden since 2007. She is now also holder of the Sasol Research Chair in Analytical Polymer Science at SU, formerly held by Prof. Harald Pasch for 12 years.

Prof. Lederer, who divides her time equally between Stellenbosch and Dresden, says both groups currently benefit from the analytical and technical equipment in the different laboratories, as well as the diverse skill sets of the researchers.

“Over the years Prof. Pasch established an impressive and unique array of analytical and technical equipment in his lab here at SU. At international conferences he always used to inspire us with exciting results, despite coming from a developing country,” she explains from her office at SU’s Polymer Science building.

It was after one such international conference in 2016 that he invited her to visit his lab, especially as he was considering retirement soon. That is how the idea of a joint research group was born.

“It wasn’t easy to get this off the ground, as it was a first for both IPF Dresden and Stellenbosch to combine two groups and two labs under one umbrella,” she adds.

Since the official establishment of the group in 2020, they have secured funding from national and international funding agencies such as the European Union, the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, South Africa’s National Research Foundation (NRF), SASOL, the German Research Foundation, the Leibniz Association, Stellenbosch University and the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA). Most of these projects involve large multidisciplinary teams and collaborations with researchers from a range of institutions in Europe and South Africa.

Expanding the boundaries of polymer analysis

In addition to unique multidimensional separations established by Prof. Pasch, today, the group focuses on the specific adaptation of field flow fractionation (FFF) to effectively and reliably analyse highly complex macromolecular systems. Field flow fractionation is a technique used to separate and analyse different components of a mixture based on their size, shape and other physical properties. The separation and quantification of encapsulated or released drugs realised in this manner are of great importance for the development of new therapeutic methods.

Prof. Lederer says that by coupling different methods, they have enriched the deep understanding of structural changes within complex macromolecular samples as a function of various parameters.

“In recent years, we have made great progress in moving from a trial-and-error approach to a targeted theory-based method, including analytical predictions. Over the next few years we plan to develop thermal field flow fractionation into a powerful tool that can be used, for example, to study ultrahigh-molecular-weight polyolefins or the distribution of plasmonic properties in metal-polymer hybrid systems”.

Some of the projects sound like something from science fiction. The 3D4D2 project, for example, aims to develop a custom-designed three-dimensional polymer matrix device for dual drug delivery and treatment of acute malaria and malaria transmission. In lay man’s terms, this means the development of a custom-designed device that can be injected under the skin, releasing multiple antimalarial drugs in a controllable manner over time, at the same time eliminating malaria distribution by blocking transmission.

While they are still some way off from the real thing, Prof. Lederer says they have already made significant advances since the start of the project in 2021. “We now have a team consisting of world class international researchers with unique expert knowledge to contribute and enable a significant step ahead in the treatment of malaria”.

Benefits of diversity

Apart from having access to unique equipment, Prof. Lederer says a major advantage of such an international collaboration is the exposure of young scientists and postgraduate students to other ways of thinking and doing: “I believe one should be open to the world and learn from it. Everyone in my group therefore gets an opportunity to switch labs and learn new techniques and skills in a new environment”.

Only recently, postdoctoral fellow Dr Martin Geisler and PhD student Joshua Johani arrived from IPF Dresden to perform the next part of their work at SU, while Dr Helen Pfukwa will visit IPF Dresden from July to September this year.

Prof. Lederer’s group also recently hosted the 34th International Symposium on Polymer Analysis and Characterization – the first time in its 35-year history to be held in Africa. It was attended by over one hundred delegates, including a delegation of ten from SASOL. The local organising committee consisted of Prof. Lederer, Dr Helen Pfukwa (SU) and Dr Susanne Boye (IPF Dresden).

Apart from research on theoretical and applied field flow fractionation for complex nanostructures, the group also focuses on new characterization methods and high-temperature separation of polyolefins, as well as innovative methods for analytics of natural and complex synthetic polymers and for the development of materials from renewable resources.

According to Prof. Peter Mallon, head of the Department of Chemistry and Polymer Science at SU, a major factor leading to the success of the collaboration is that it is mutually beneficial to both SU and IPF: “This is truly an equal partnership which exploits the complementary equipment and expertise of both institutions in polymer separations. It provides the opportunity for postgraduate students and staff from both institutions to be exposed to a wider array of analytical instruments and expertise than would otherwise be the case,” he concludes.

Prof. Louise Warnich, Dean of SU’s Faculty of Science, says the success of the agreement with IPF has thus far exceeded all expectations: “This type of agreement offers a workable solution to obtain scarce expertise that is not available locally. Due to the success of the current arrangement, we are considering similar agreements for other specialist areas”.

Prof. Brigitte Voit, Head of IPF Institute of Macromolecular Chemistry, concurs on the mutual benefit for both institutions: “It is amazing to see how this first-of-its-kind joint appointment has brought us a huge step forward in developing new analytical tools and enhancing science”.

On the photo above: Prof. Albena Lederer from the Leibniz-Institute for Polymer Research (IPF) Dresden in Germany was jointly appointed at SU in 2020. She has now expanded her polymer separation research group at IPF, founded in 2007, to include the Sasol Research Chair at SU. Also part of the 20-member group are Dr Susanne Boye (IPF), Dr Martin Geisler (IPF), Dr Zanelle Viktor (SU/IPF), Dr Helen Pfukwa (SU) and Dr Upenyu Muza (IPF/SU). Photo credit: Leibniz-IPF, Juliana Socher