Funding to help SU cut industry costs of research proteins

Dr Du Preez van Staden.

Recently awarded funding from the University Technology Fund (UTF) and INNOVUS (University Industry Interaction and Innovation Company of Stellenbosch University) could help Stellenbosch University (SU) researchers to develop affordable recombinant proteins for academic and industrial research into providing possible solutions for pressing global health issues.

In order to do relevant research on certain health issues, researchers need sufficient amounts of proteins of interest to use in laboratory-based experiments. SU researchers may have come up with a solution for this problem – not just for other researchers in an academic environment, but also for researchers in industrial settings.

Increasingly, researchers are turning to biological genomes and recombinant proteins for solutions to tackle global health issues, such as antibiotic resistance, global pandemics, or diseases such as cancer.

However, the availability and affordability of sufficient amounts of proteins of interest to use in these laboratory-based experiments is a common obstacle in this field of research. Recently awarded funding from the UTF and INNOVUS could help to address this.

The amount awarded for the research on this projects amounts to R495 000, and the funding period is twelve months.

What the funding is being used for?

To address this shortage of sufficient amounts of proteins of interests, Dr Du Preez van Staden, in collaboration with the Department of Microbiology and the Division of Clinical Pharmacology, is developing a robust bacterial heterologous expression platform to produce difficult-to-obtain proteins with valuable bioactivates utilising fluorescent fusion-based technology.

He is jointly supervised by Prof Carine Smith (Division of Clinical Pharmacology) and Prof Leon Dicks (Department Microbiology, Faculty of Science).

Heterologous expression offers the possibility of enzyme production with a high yield and a secretion of the product into the culture medium.

"This process reduces both the cost and the time of industrial production of these proteins," says Smith.

"These recombinant proteins are used in several research fields, including medical science, and are crucial in several laboratory techniques such as ELISA, western blot and immunohistochemistry," adds Van Staden.

ELISA stands for enzyme-linked immunoassay and is a widely used laboratory test to detect antibodies in the blood. A western blot refers to a laboratory method used to detect specific protein molecules from among a mixture of proteins. Immunohistochemistry refers to a laboratory method that uses antibodies to check for certain antigens in a sample of tissue.

"The process of heterologous expression introduces foreign genes into a microbe to produce a non-native protein. This requires a fair degree of skill, refinement, equipment and experience to perform effectively," according to Van Staden. "Not only does this process require a large degree of input from the researcher, but it is also normally only the application of these proteins which is of research interest/value."

Why the development of these recombinant proteins is so crucial

Van Staden adds that recombinant proteins are also used in the development of biotherapeutics, which can be used for the treatment of diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, autoimmune diseases and microbial infections.

"Their successful production is a crucial first step in research and development, as well as their final commercialisation. Providing researchers with access to affordable recombinant proteins will enable them to further their research without breaking the bank," says Van Staden.

The production of these proteins will not only be of benefit to researchers, but also to industrial partners, who will be able to accelerate their research. The division also provides consultation and laboratory services, so will be of use to both academic and industrial researchers.

"With our expertise we can help them with their recombinant protein production needs, letting them get back to focusing on their research sooner," adds van Staden.

"The funding provided by the UTF is a stepping stone to mature our recombinant technology, and to help us to increase our capacity to produce recombinant proteins and to provide consultation and lab services," according to Van Staden.

FMHS Marketing & Communication – Susan Erasmus