In 2003, the labour of hundreds of experiments and many unsuccessful chip designs finally came to fruition for a young Caltech PhD candidate, Frederick Balagaddé, with an epiphany that led to the invention of the microchemostat. It was the first implementation of a microfluidic chip that mimics an environment for culturing live bacterial cells in perpetuity. Dr Balagaddé and his lab now apply the microchemostat and other such microfluidic devices to advance K-RITH’s clinical and research projects.
“The story of mankind is littered with stunning examples of seemingly insurmountable problems that were later trivialised by technological innovation,” he says. “Examples range from vaccines and combine harvesters to cell phones and the internet. I believe in the potential of microfluidics technology to deliver transformative solutions to modern epidemics including HIV and TB.”
Dr Balagaddé grew up in Uganda, observing conditions of relative poverty on a daily basis. He then won a scholarship to study for his university degree at Manchester College and later at the California Institute of Technology in the USA. “As a scientist working in the US, you can see solutions that could help the world,” says Balagaddé. His unique life experience has motivated him to make his work count by designing medical solutions that will be relevant to local conditions. As part of this vision, he was honoured with a prestigious TED Senior fellowship. TED is a professional organisation of world leaders in the areas of Technology, Entertainment and Design.
Balagaddé explains that in Africa, there is an increasingly intense demand for first-class health care solutions at local market rates.
He believes that K-RITH provides a first-of-its-kind opportunity for scientists to engage in cutting-edge research inside a disease vortex, involving two major epidemics in an otherwise resource-limited setting. “It is a unique proposition that is very difficult for any scientist interested in the well-being of Africa and the world at large to ignore.”
Get in touch with Frederick Balagaddé via email@example.com
The K-RITH Bioengineering Laboratory hosts the first microfluidic chip-making foundry in Africa. We are developing medical microchip systems to help control the devastating HIV and TB co-epidemic in South Africa and beyond.
K-RITH Bioengineering research brings the rigour and precision of microfluidics to bear on the biology and pathogenesis of HIV and Mycobacterium tuberculosis.
Through a series of solution-driven engineering projects, K-RITH Bioengineering is developing high throughput research platforms and scalable diagnostic systems, or microfluidic systems, aimed at providing low-cost, sample-in-answer-out disease diagnostic devices to address the HIV and TB epidemics.
The overriding objective of this programme is to enable healthcare technologists to perform hundreds (or thousands) of medical tests at once on a single microchip; a strategic initiative aimed at multiplying the effective output of each individual clinical technologist and thereby bridging the healthcare resource gap in the developing world.
Meet the Team
Tawanda Mandizvo completed his BSc in Biochemistry and Chemistry summa cum laude at UKZN’s Pietermaritzburg campus in 2013. He then went on to do a BSc Honours at Rhodes University, focussing on Medicinal Chemistry. In 2016, he completed his Master of Medical Science degree with summa cum laude distinction with K-RITH at UKZN. His research focused on developing LightForge—a highly scalable microfluidic platform for genomic drug susceptibility interrogation of tuberculosis strains. He was awarded the prestigious Canon Collins scholarship for exceptional individuals in Southern Africa. Tawanda is pursuing his PhD in the bioengineering lab of Dr Frederick Balagaddé at K-RITH. He is now applying microfluidic technologies for single cell analysis to characterise heterogeneity in HIV-TB tissues.
Tafara Kunota completed a Bachelor of Science degree in Computational Physics in 2012 at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, graduating Summa Cum Laude. He then completed his Honours degree in Physics in 2013, Summa Cum Laude. Tafara joined K-RITH as an intern in 2013 and later registered as a full-time Master’s student in 2014 under the supervision of Dr Balagadde. Tafara graduated in 2016 with a Master’s degree for the work he did investigating engineering platforms in microfluidics. Tafara is working on his PhD degree under the supervision of Dr Balagaddé, further investigating and developing user-friendly microfluidic diagnostic platforms.
RESEARCH LABORATORY TECHNOLOGIST
Sithembile Ngcobo was born and raised in Durban. She completed her National Diploma in Biotechnology in 2006 at Durban University of Technology. She has worked in clinical research for both TB and HIV with the South African Medical Research Council and CAPRISA as a research technologist. Sithembile is currently working in K-RITH’s Bioengineering Lab as a TB research technologist, where she processes sputum samples, performs DST and stores Mycobacterium tuberculosis isolates. She also provides support services for the students in the lab.
Jared Mackenzie did his Masters in Medical Biochemistry through UKZN while working in Professor Anil Chuturgoon’s lab. There he was introduced to cancer research and investigating the potential benefits of traditional medicine. As HIV and TB represent a major problem in South Africa, Jared decided to broaden his research expertise and focus on a problem that represents a global health threat. Jared is currently working on a project involving the use of microfluidics. He is interested in using microfluidics to develop a new way of culturing Mycobacteria. By achieving this, the growth kinetics of Mycobacteria can be more easily studied and adjusted. This could be hugely beneficial to the development of novel drugs and vaccines for Mycobacterium tuberculosis and may change our perception of the microbe entirely.
Ian Maheti Mbano did his undergraduate degree in Industrial and Applied Biotechnology at UKZN, followed by an honours degree (cum laude) in microbiology. Ian graduated with a Masters degree in 2016. His research focussed on the diagnosis of tuberculosis using the Polymerase Chain reaction (PCR) coupled with powerful, miniaturised and high throughput Microfluidics systems. He is now enrolled for a PHD. Ian’s hobbies include basketball and music.
Bonisile Luthuli grew up in Dundee in KwaZulu-Natal. She studied Biochemistry at UKZN in Pietermaritzburg. Bonisile graduated with a Masters degree in 2016, under the mentorship of Dr Balagaddé. Her research explored drug susceptibility testing for TB in microfluidics as a way of developing reliable and cost effective TB diagnosis. She is now enrolled for a PHD. She sees K-RITH as an excellent platform to gain as much scientific knowledge as she can and is very excited be working on tuberculosis, which is the major cause of death in HIV infected people.
Ashmika Surujdeen is a medical microbiologist and is the Laboratory Supervisor for the K-RITH Bioengineering Lab. Her role is to ensure the efficient operation and maintenance of the lab. This includes biological sample processing, supervision of staff and students and management of the financial and administrative aspects of the laboratory. Ashmika studied at UKZN’s Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine in Durban. With molecular and microbiological research experience in the fields of tuberculosis and cancer, she provides research support to her peers on various cutting-edge microfluidics bioengineering projects.
Confinement-Induced Drug-Tolerance in Mycobacteria Mediated by an Efflux Mechanism DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0136231
The new role of the microchemostat in the bioengineering revolution 31st Annual International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society
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Long-term monitoring of bacteria undergoing programmed population control in a microchemostat Science, 309(5731), 137-140. doi:10.1126/science.1109173