CAPE TOWN, South Africa, Nov 22 - As many black South Africans struggle to shake off the legacy of Apartheid, some are finding that bioinformatics offers a ticket to a better life.
Take Junaid Gamieldien, a 28-year-old doctoral student who has co-developed a bioinformatics tool designed to hunt for virulence in bacteria.
The software and algorithms designed by Gamieldien and Win Hide, director of SANBI, allow researchers to quickly sift through the electronic databases of the genomes of infectious bacteria to identify strong candidates for virulence genes.
After Gamieldien presented the software at an international medical conference held in Slovakia in September, Harvard Medical School adopted the tool. Harvard and SANBI are now planning to jointly use the system to search for virulence genes in Helicobacter pylori , the organism that causes gastric ulcers.
Gamieldien’s story is all the more impressive against the backdrop of poverty and poor educational opportunities for black South Africans that still exists even in the post-Apartheid era.
Raised in a lower middle-class suburb of Cape Town, Gamieldien attended one of the few schools that offer strong math and science programs for black students. He then went on to study microbiology at the University of the Western Cape and bioinformatics at SANBI. Over the years, Gamieldien has been credited with some pretty major finds.
Earlier this year his doctoral research made headlines in South African papers. In his study, Gamieldien found that the tuberculosis bacterium, one of South Africa’s biggest killers, has increased its virulence by having acquired plant genes that it uses to suppress humans’ immune response while boosting its own energy and defensive capabilities.
After completing his post-graduate studies, Gamieldien said he planned to work at SANBI. He then hopes to do cutting-edge research in the United States before settling down in South Africa, where he plans to fulfill his dream of establishing his own bioinformatics company.
“It is extremely important for South Africa that we establish a strong biotechnology industry to help stop the continuous loss of well-trained biological scientists to completely unrelated industries,” said Gamieldien. “I want to be part of that drive.”