South Africa: Laying Foundations for Precision Cancer Medicine

The recent acquisition of a portfolio of key life sciences patents, promises to push cancer biotechnology research at the University of Cape Town (UCT) to new heights under the leadership of Professor Stefan Barth.

The acquisition of these patents comes in the wake of Barth's 2015 appointment as the Department of Science and Technology/National Research Foundation's South African Research Chair (SARChI) in Cancer Biotechnology at UCT. As part of this role, Barth established the UCT Medical Biotechnology and Immunotherapy (MB&I) research group, which focuses on developing targeted approaches to diagnose and treat different diseases using antibodies, proteins produced by the immune system.

This field of immunotherapy is pioneering cancer therapies with fewer and less severe side effects, and less toxicity than traditional therapies.

MB&I's research focus has been on using antibodies as diagnostic and therapeutic tools for certain cancers.

Prior to his arrival in South Africa, Barth had proved himself to be a prolific inventor with 35 patent families covering 172 individual patent applications mostly filed under the stewardship of his previous employer, the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft. Since last year when Barth resigned from and quit Pharmedartis GmbH (the first Fraunhofer Life Science start-up company, which he co-founded in 2006), he has expanded his experimental work on targeted fusion proteins with the aim of improving the already existing UCT patent portfolio.

Foundations for leading-edge cancer research

Since its establishment and accreditation as a university-recognised research unit in 2018, MB&I's research focus has been on using antibodies as diagnostic and therapeutic tools for certain cancers. Because antibodies bind specifically to foreign targets as a means of allowing the immune system to flush them out, they can - in practice and when harnessed correctly - be used to detect tumour cells.

Taking this concept a step further: the same antibody can be used to deliver a therapeutic substance directly to these cells, once it has been developed successfully as a diagnostic tool that binds to tumour but not normal cells. By targeting only diseased cells, this kind of personalised treatment could limit - or eliminate - damage to healthy cells, which is common with more conventional therapies. This will reduce negative side effects in cancer patients.

"The patents we've acquired allow us to generate fusion proteins for treating human cancers," says Barth. "They are very valuable and provide a good basis for continuing our research."

CURIT Biotech South Africa

Getting these types of life-saving inventions out of the lab and onto the market can be costly and very time-consuming. Since potential investors and joint venture partners may be hesitant about lengthy decision-making, they sometimes prefer to engage with a private company rather than a research institution.

Because of this, Barth co-founded the company CURIT Biotech South Africa. UCT and CURIT Biotech South Africa have negotiated a pipeline agreement that allows exclusive access to patents with his main inventorship, as well as the rights for full exploitation.

CURIT Biotech South Africa will play an integral role in providing local employment for highly skilled postgraduate students when they complete their studies.

"With these assets, I can start engaging with potential investors because I have access to my background intellectual property as well as future intellectual property at UCT," Barth explains.

Securing scientists with scarce skills

Apart from providing a route to market for patents, CURIT Biotech South Africa will also play an integral role in providing local employment for highly skilled postgraduate students when they complete their studies - something Barth is passionate about.

Barth says that while researching the higher education system in South Africa, he recognised that a massive number of skilled scientists are being produced, but that after three or four years of post-doctoral funding, employment opportunities for them are few and far between.

He sees the pipeline agreement between UCT and CURIT Biotech South Africa as a key component of addressing this problem for his own research group.

"The patents we've acquired allow us to generate fusion proteins for treating human cancers."

"To be able translate products into application at this early stage, we would aim to get private sector funding for CURIT Biotech South Africa and then subcontract selected projects to MB&I as the research and development unit taking care of this," Barth explains.

Ultimately, Barth's hope is that the MB&I will become a space where scarce skills are not only developed but also retained through developing internationally competitive intellectual property on antibody technologies that can be translated into financially viable products both nationally and worldwide.

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