Name: Reinhard Hiller
Title: Director, Center for Proteomic and Genomic Research, Capetown, South Africa
Background: Hiller has served as director of CPGR since 2005. He previously worked as a scientist for Vienna-based VBC Genomics, where he helped to develop its Immuno Solid-Phase Allergen Chip. In 1999, Hiller earned a PhD in molecular biology from the University of Vienna.
It’s been over a year since the Center for Proteomic and Genomic Research in Capetown opened its doors to South Africa’s scientific community, and according to Reinhard Hiller, its co-director and founder, business has been good.
Earlier this month the center said that it has developed partnerships with Austrian array instrumentation vendor Tecan as well as GenTel Biosciences, a Wisconsin-based protein array firm. The center is also expanding the breadth of its scientific projects from allergy testing to tuberculosis vaccine development.
To get an update on CPGR’s new partnerships with industry vendors as well as how it has been nurturing the nascent South African biotech community, BioArray News spoke with Hiller this week.
CPGR has now been open for a year. What have been some of your key accomplishments so far?
In principle, what has been happening over the past year and a half, actually, is that we have been growing in response to the demands of the local scientific community. This means that by the end of 2007, we were involved with about 80 different scientists, organizations, or projects at any given time using one or more of the technologies that we have in the lab.
Eighty is quite a large number, which is very nice because it lets us know we’ve done the right thing in setting up this facility. It simply shows that there is a strong demand for the technology that we are offering and for our infrastructure and expertise and the approach we are following in terms of engaging with the scientific community in South Africa.
What we have seen since we opened our doors is that in most cases we engage with the community through projects, so it is not a simple fee-for-service type of approach. Typically when someone walks in the lab it’s not just for analyzing a whole bunch of samples. We are really getting involved in the planning and the management of the projects as well. This is good for us because we then have a long-term perspective and can recover our costs, which is important since we have to become self-sustainable.
What we have also seen is that we have been very proactive in attracting science and work from overseas and we have managed to bring in a lot of projects that involve both academics and industry. So we are also establishing ourselves in the international playground, especially in the genomics and proteomics arena.
How is your relationship with different platform vendors?
We have managed to establish a lot of fruitful relationships, such as one with Tecan, and we are using a lot of their instruments because they are reliable and the support is good in this country. And we are using Tecan as a platform for identifying relationships with other organizations throughout the world.
We also have developed a good relationship with GenTel Biosciences and just recently I and CPGR co-Director Jonathan Blackburn joined the scientific advisory board of GenTel. We have decided to use their arrays, both the plain substrates for protein arraying, as well as some of their applications like their cytokine array assay or cancer biomarker assay for research as well as for service purposes here in the country.
What we are doing at the moment is adapting their existing array formats to the equipment that we have, both the HS 4800 Pro hybridization station from Tecan as well as Tecan’s Hydroflex, which is a microplate washer that is capable of handling up to 16 arrays on one plate. We are actually just now running a project profiling allergens in seafood, and we are comparing the hybridization station versus the Hydroflex in terms of reproducibility in order to find out which is the best platform going forward for research purposes as well as diagnostic purposes.
Can you tell me more about the CPGR’s projects?
In the allergy field we are collaborating with the allergy division of the University of Capetown Lung Institute, one of the leading allergy clinics here in South Africa. Together we aim at boosting allergy research in the country when it comes to diagnostics and immunotherapy, but also to look into allergen assessments of genetically modified foods and plants. South Africa is strongly getting involved in the development of genetically modified plants, and CPGR is establishing programs for allergenicity assessment and profiling of these plants.
The main focus of the this allergy collaboration is going to be on developing improved diagnostic products for allergy and later to focus on immunotherapy approaches specifically developed for the local populations. In this respect we are also pursuing collaborative approaches with diagnostic companies such as VBC Genomics and leading immunotherapy companies to speed up the development of practical applications. In my mind, a partnership of CPGR, leading clinicians and industry will facilitate a translational medicine approach by more effectively converting research findings into improved diagnostic tests or novel immunotherapies.
We are also involved in a project with a German company called JPT. They are developing high-density peptide arrays and one of the first is a high-density peptide tiling array for the [Mycobacterium tuberculosis] proteome. What we have seen by working with scientists here is that the protocols for the chip were OK, but not really optimized. So now we have agreed to develop assays for them on the Tecan hyb station.
The ultimate goal is simply to use these next-generation tiling arrays for antibody profiling in joint projects with leading TB scientists in the country, to look for diagnostic markers or for immune response correlates in clinical trials so we can determine how well a TB vaccine is working in patients or animal models and to try and establish efficacy based on antibody profiles.
After developing these protocols we will also be looking into HIV and malaria assays, both of which are very important here in the country. In general, we like to focus on implementing next-generation array products that are going to be beneficial to the scientific community in South Africa.
In the same area, a project is ongoing with the Aeras Global TB Foundation, a Gates Foundation-funded organization in the US which is developing TB vaccines. For them we are developing a protocol for a clinical trial material release assay in mice. Aeras is testing a new TB vaccine in mouse models and we are developing a similar peptide array for generating response profiles of antibody-binding patterns that correlate with the activity and functionality of the vaccines.
How are you coping with this workload?
We are 10 people at the moment but the staff complement is growing. Typically, we have a core number of staff and we are normally collaborating with scientists locally who bring in additional resources where necessary. So we focus in our lab on running the applications and making sure that new applications are implemented properly and protocols are developed and established in compliance with internationally accepted procedures. The science is currently mainly done in joint projects with scientists locally or overseas.
Based on the demand and growth we have seen, we are also developing our own research and biomarker programs, but that will really only happen during the course of this year. In this regard, we are also looking at International Standards Organization certification for the lab to ensure that we have the appropriate regulatory environment for certain partners, such as pharmaceutical companies or clinical trial organizations, which want to use our facility. In general, implementing a decent quality management system is simply a way to ensure consistent quality and to become more competitive internationally.
What kind of demand are you seeing for the center in South Africa? Have you worked with any other African labs since you opened your doors?
We started off as a regional technology platform funded by Cape Biotech Trust, a regional funding organization based in Capetown. CBT is one of four major funding organizations that are investing into commercially oriented projects to boost the biotech space in South Africa. Based on the fact that the technologies we are using are broad based and can be applied to any project, we are now serving not just the Western Cape region but all of the country, including some of the major universities and biotech organizations in Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Durban – facilities located all over the country actually.
In addition, we have been in contact with other organizations in Namibia, for example, Cameroon, and Tanzania – but that’s in the early stages. We are establishing contacts, but in general effectively working with scientists in these countries is a question of funding and also distance. Many of the researchers in the central African countries or other southern African countries are initially interested in pursuing funding opportunities. We are not a funding organization but we like to pursue joint-funding opportunities, locally as well as internationally, in order to expand our operating space and to support other African countries.