Frederick Balagaddé, Ph.D.

Assistant Investigator

In 2003, after about two years of intensive research, the labour of hundreds of experiments and many unsuccessful chip designs finally came to fruition for Dr. Balagaddé with an epiphany that led to the invention of the microchemostat – the first implementation of a microfluidic chip that mimics an environment for culturing live bacterial cells in perpetuity. Now Dr. Balagaddé is set to 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 trivialized by technological innovation” says Balagaddé.  “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.”

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 U.S.  “As a scientist working in the U.S., 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 organization of world leaders in the areas of Technology, Entertainment and Design.  Click here to watch Balagaddé’s TED talk.

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.”

Balagaddé and his family are excited about their move to South Africa, saying it gives them a unique opportunity to contribute to the wellbeing of Africa.

Abstract: 

At the core of my research is the desire to unlock the potential of microfluidics technology to create low-cost disease diagnostic solutions for the Developing World.  At K-RITH, I will be focussing on microfluidics large scale integration (MLSI) to create low-cost, sample-in-answer-out diagnostic tools and high-throughput research platforms to understand HIV and TB pathogenesis.  The high-throughput approach multiplies the output of clinical and laboratory technologists and will help speed up the research cycle. The small biological sample size requirement of MLSI and its automation minimizes the time, cost and effort needed to culture microbes as well as the risk of exposure to infectious pathogens.  Moreover, the space-saving footprint is favourable for future portability.

I had my first breakthrough with microfluidics while working on my Ph.D. at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). There, I helped to invent the microchemostat—the first implementation of a microfluidic chip for culturing bacteria in perpetuity in dew-droplet-sized reactors. Cast within a postage stamp-sized block of clear plastic, the device’s highly complex web of tiny pumps and human hair-sized pipes delivers nutrients to each reactor, scrubs the reactor walls, and removes waste, all controlled by a multitasking computer. Bacterial populations in the microchemostat are orders of magnitude smaller in number compared to conventional chemostats, which results in proportionately fewer cell division, and thus mutation, events. In effect, the microchemostat slows down evolution—a valuable feature in synthetic biology, where strong selection pressure often causes premature loss of genetically programmed behaviour.

I have used the microchemostat to characterise two genetically engineered microbial systems: a “population control circuit" and a “predator-prey synthetic ecosystem.” The microchemostat has enabled discoveries about these programmed biological circuits that eluded detection in conventional settings. Because they run autonomously, microfluidic systems eliminate pipetting, plating and other hands-on tasks while providing minute-by-minute read-out data in various forms—for example cell count, morphology, motility and gene expression (via fluorescence reporters). Microfluidic systems also combine ultra-low reagent consumption with a space-saving footprint to yield high throughput results at low cost.

If you are interested in working for Dr. Balagaddé as a Ph.D. student or postdoctoral fellow, please e-mail him at, frederick.balagadde@k-rith.org.

Interested in working for Dr. Balagaddé as a Ph.D. student or postdoctoral fellow? E-mail frederick.balagadde@k-rith.org.
 

EDUCATION: 
  • PhD and MS, Applied Physics, California Institute of Technology, California
  • BA, Physics and Computer Science, Manchester College, USA
MEMBER: 
  • TED Senior Fellow, New York, USA
  • Africa Leadership Network, Sandton, South Africa
SIGNIFICANT PUBLICATIONS: 
  • Long-term monitoring of bacteria undergoing programmed population control in a michrochemostat. Science
  • A synthetic Escherichia Coli Predator-Prey system. Mol. Sys. Biol
  • The new role of the microchemostat in the bioengineering revolution. Conf Proc IEEE Eng Med Biol Soc
  • Biology by design: Reduction and synthesis of cellular components and behaviour. Journal of the Royal Society Interface
  • The new role of the michrochemostat in the bioengineering revolution. Conf Proc IEEE Eng Med Biol Soc
  • The electrical and thermal conductivity of woven pristine and intercalated graphite fibre-polymer composites. Carbon
  • Microfluidic chemostat. US Patent
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