South Africa’s first integrated proteomics and genomic center officially opened last week providing what officials hope will be a catalyst for the nation’s biotechnology industry.
Launched in 2006, the non-profit Center for Proteomic and Genomic Research has been handling several projects in the 18 months since becoming operational. In the meantime, it also has been refining its business model to bring in more revenues — it was created with a $2.5 million grant from the South African government — and is considering converting to for-profit status.
The center was created in order to raise interest in biotechnology research in the region and fuel more genomics and proteomics studies. While that remains a core focus, the center has also been evaluating its business model, and determined that in order to fulfill its mission and remain viable, it needed to increase its revenue stream and expand its geographic reach — something its non-profit status could inhibit, proteomics research director Jonathan Blackburn told ProteoMonitor.
“Our original mission was a very altruistic business model — be here for the benefit of everybody else,” Blackburn said. “But actually, what we’ve learned is that in order to make our business model work, we need to start going after more commercially oriented work and potentially commercially oriented work that originates overseas. We’ve been told by our board to go more actively after that international business.”
The center is taking a wait-and-see approach to determine whether becoming a for-profit would be the best strategy, “but if this revised model is successful — and I’m sure it will be — then we will become a for-profit company before you know it,” he added.
Another option would be to keep CPGR as a non-profit while spinning out for-profit companies as separate entities. Before making any decision, CPGR officials will look at revised revenue and profit projections. The plan was to get the center self-sustainable after four years, but at the present pace, it is on track to do so this year, two years ahead of schedule.
In an e-mail to ProteoMonitor, Reinhard Hiller, the center’s managing director, said that CPGR posted revenues of about $550,000 for its fiscal year ended March 31 and conservatively projects revenues of $1 million for its current fiscal year, which began April 1.
Blackburn attributes the center’s financial fast track partly to the background of himself and Hiller. Prior to CPGR, Blackburn was the founding scientist and CSO at Sense Proteomic and chief scientist at Procognia. Hiller was R&D director at VBC Genomics.
“In setting up the CPGR, rather than setting it up as an academic core facility, we’ve set it up as if it were a start-up biotech company subject to the constraints of a venture capital-backed company, even though we actually weren’t,” Blackburn said. “So we’ve been very aggressive in our business development.”
Building an Infrastructure
Started with a ZAR 20 million [$2.5 million] grant from the South African Department of Science and Technology, the center had three overarching goals when it was being created: to stimulate new biotechnology in South Africa “by translating academic research, improving the translation of academic research into new IP [and] new commercial ventures,” according to Blackburn; to help existing biotech firms in the region exploit commercial opportunities without having to make major capital investments; and to increase the South African knowledge base in proteomics and genomics by helping to train graduate, post-graduate, and post-doctoral students.
“In setting up the CPGR, rather than setting it up as an academic core facility, we’ve set it up as if it were a start-up biotech company subject to the constraints of a venture capital backed company, even though we actually weren’t.”
“What we observed two and a half years ago was that there really was no infrastructure in high-throughput biology in South Africa,” Blackburn said. “Not only was there no equipment infrastructure, there was very little by way of technical expertise surrounding what infrastructure there was there.
“So we effectively set out to try to address both those gaps. What we wanted to do … was say, ‘What we’re after is a modern, world-class high-throughput biology facility,’” he said.
Today, the center is working on about 70 projects. It has a contract with an undisclosed “large” European clinical genotyping firm, which is giving the facility a “healthy margin,” Blackburn said.
In the proteomics arena, it is negotiating with the Aeras Global TB Vaccine Foundation to develop quality control assays for tuberculosis vaccines. The center would be using high-density peptide-tiling arrays for antibody profiling in humans and animals as a response to vaccination, Hiller said in an e-mail.
“Now we are also exploring other opportunities, including the use of microarrays containing native TB proteins or fractions of TB cultures, iTRAQ-based protein expression profiling … or cell-culture based multiplex cytokine profiling,” he said.
Meanwhile, the center is involved in several other proteomics collaborations, including the development of a protein-based diagnostic for tuberculosis, a major health issue in South Africa. According to a report from the country’s health department, the nation has the seventh-highest rate of tubercular infection in the world. In 2006, 720 out of every 100,000 South Africans, a total of 341,000, were diagnosed with the disease.
As a result, a massive vaccination program has been implemented and individuals are getting vaccinated as young as 10 weeks old. Some of those being vaccinated are not developing protective responses, however.
Members of the South African TB Vaccine Initiative, which is working to develop TB vaccines, is working with the CPGR to create a diagnostic that can discriminate those who have developed immunity to the disease from those who haven’t. “In other words, [those who] need to get re-vaccinated,” Blackburn said.
In southern Africa, the tuberculosis epidemic is increasingly driven by HIV, and throughout the region about 70 percent of new active tuberculosis cases also have HIV, Blackburn said. Also, many patients being treated for TB/HIV are developing immune reconstitution inflammatory syndrome, or IRIS, a potentially fatal condition.
CPGR is working with its collaborators to develop a protein biomarker panel “that would distinguish between different patient cohorts and to try to identify clues [about] the pathology of this syndrome,” Blackburn said.
The center also has proteomics projects underway dealing with disease resistance in corn and the identification of pathogens in grapevines as well as diagnostic markers for colorectal cancer.
The center has 10 employees, three of whom are dedicated to proteomics. With demand for their proteomic services increasing, Blackburn said, the CPGR is currently recruiting more researchers.
Currently, its proteomics operation is outfitted with a Dionex UltiMate 3000 2D nanoLC and an Applied Biosystems 4800 MALDI-TOF/TOF mass spectrometer. While the center was still being planned, other laboratories in the region, particularly those located on the Western Cape, were surveyed on what equipment already were in place to ensure that the CPGR wasn’t duplicating efforts, Blackburn said.
He said the equipment it now has suffices, but in the future the center would like to obtain an electrospray ionization mass spectrometer for post-translational modification analysis. The CPGR has to go to other facilities for such work now.
Mindful that the lack of validation has been a limitation of proteomics research, the center is also “very focused” on downstream validation research, particularly the use of protein array-based methodologies.
CPGR is developing new technologies as well, primarily protein arrays for the analysis of protein-drug interactions in high throughput and immune responses to diseases in high throughput.
“We’ve been enormously busy,” Blackburn said. “We are expanding our staff complement in response to demand in the present time. And the demand is a direct response to our business development activity.”