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A significant breakthrough in research to understand what makes bacteria virulent has been achieved by a black PhD student from the University of the Western Cape (UWC) near Cape Town, South Africa. Harvard Medical School in the USA has already adopted the new bio-informatics tool.

Developed by Junaid Gamieldien and Win Hide, the system uses software and algorithms to sift through the electronic databases of the genomes of infected bacteria and finds strong candidates for virulent genes - those that enable the bacteria to invade the host's immune response and cause disease. This short circuits months of laboratory work and should help speed up the development of new drugs and vaccines. It has the ability to narrow the search from thousands to a handful of gene candidates.

Gamieldien's research sparked the interest of Professor John Mekalanos, head of microbiology and molecular genetics at Harvard University, when the young South African presented his research at an international medical conference in Slovakia. The result is that Harvard and the South African National Bioinformatics Institute (Sanbi) will collaborate in using the tool to track down virulent genes in the organism that causes gastric ulcers. The tool will also be employed to analyse other African pathogens such as malaria and TB.

The breakthrough didn't come easily. Gamieldien and Hide have been working on the system for the past three years.

"Our system provides Harvard with tremendous power in what genes to choose in the fight to cure gastric ulcers and can save them months, if not years, says Hide.

If the system is successfully validated by Harvard, Hide believes, it would have vast commercial potential running into millions of rands, of which UWC stands to earn 25% of any licensing fees.

Multinational pharmaceutical giants Bristol Myers Squibb has expressed an interest in licensing the technology. Sanbi, however, feels it should be made broadly available under licence.
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Publication:African Business
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Apr 1, 2001
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