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Cape Town's Blackburn Builds Out Research Center

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Jonathan Blackburn has been busy. Not only has he been building up the research capabilities of the Centre for Proteomic and Genomic Research at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, he has recently been named to GenTel BioSciences’ scientific advisory board.

As director of Cape Town’s Centre for Proteomic and Genomic Research, Blackburn has been on a spending spree, outfitting it with state-of-the-art equipment. “As a scientist, it’s been like being a kid in a candy store for the last year,” he says, adding that the South African government gave the center a $3 million grant.

With all that new equipment, Blackburn has been able to focus on the proteomics of disease as well as of drug-protein interactions, and their relationship to personalized medicine. For one project, Blackburn works with local clinicians to understand the underlying cause of an emerging syndrome, tuberculosis immune reconstitution inflammatory syndrome, that affects people with both TB and HIV who are taking highly active anti-retrovirals and front-line TB therapies. TB-IRIS is an emerging disease for two reasons, Blackburn says: “Partly because of the expansion of the HIV epidemic and the correlation of co-infection with TB, and partly ironically because of the recent roll-out of highly active retrovirals in southern Africa. Now suddenly the conditions are right for people to see this syndrome emerging.”

For another project, Blackburn notes that many prescription drugs work on less than half of the people to whom they are given and that this may be linked to polymorphisms or mutations. His lab is identifying clinically relevant mutations and assaying how they affect drug-protein interactions and, Blackburn hopes, lead to diagnostic or predictive tests.

Not only is he an experienced academic, Blackburn founded UK-based Sense Proteomic, now part of Procognia, and that’s how he first met up with GenTel in 2003. At that time, Sense Proteomic was looking around for companies to complement its functional protein arrays, and they tried GenTel’s surface chemistry. Though it didn’t work out, Blackburn stayed in touch with GenTel’s chief scientific officer. After moving to Cape Town, Blackburn began to focus on using microarrays to study infectious disease, and again contacted GenTel. “In revisiting some of our old discussions with GenTel, dating from my time as chief scientist of Procognia, Bryce Nelson and I discovered possible synergies between the work I am doing as an academic and GenTel’s new business interests in the protein array field. One thing led to another. GenTel decided maybe it’d be interesting to put me onto their scientific advisory board,” says Blackburn, referring to GenTel’s CSO Nelson.

Though it is still early days in terms of his time on GenTel’s board, Blackburn will likely be helping guide the company toward new product areas as well as suggesting applications for products they already have. One area he recommends for GenTel is glycomics — especially how it relates to disease. “There’s a whole new field in glycomics opening up, where we believe there are significant changes in glycosylation patterns on proteins that might correlate with disease in a way that would at least augment information coming from changes in protein expression levels,” says Blackburn. “And yet, very largely, the tools just don’t exist today to allow us to analyze changes in glycosylation in high throughput.”

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