The University of Botswana is in Partnership with Pitzer College to develop innovative technologies for the creation of low-cost, Botswana-produced vaccines for human and animal diseases prevalent in southern Africa.
The aim of the project is to demonstrate that vaccines can be simply and effectively produced in Botswana.
The project consists of two students, Mr. K Phiri, a graduate student, and Ms M Motlhale, a research student who, according to Melvin Leteane, a virologist in the Department of Biological Sciences at UB, are required to have done basic biology that is molecular biology, biochemistry and virology.
“We selected the students looking at their performance report based on year three results,” said Leteane.
In an interview with Sunday Standard, Leteane said there has never been any production of human disease vaccines in Botswana before.
“But work is being done on the cancer treatment (non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma) and currently Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccine is in production in the United States,” he said.
Leteane further said the expertise and technology to make vaccines is available in Botswana.
“What we are currently doing in the laboratory at the moment is a small scale version of what a fully-fledged production facility would look like. The technology is very simple but cutting edge,” he added.
Asked whether they have tried and tested any human disease vaccines in Botswana, he responded thus, “Not in Botswana, but our collaborators at Pitzer are looking at human rotavirus candidate vaccines,” he said.
The production of the vaccines will solely be made from plants. However, Leteane told Sunday Standard that Tobacco mosaic virus normally infects plants in tobacco (Solanaceae) family and, therefore, they will screen indigenous members of the Solanaceae family to see how well they express the green fluorescence protein, after which they can be used as candidates for vaccine production.
“We are growing a cousin of the tobacco plant (Nicotiana benthiama) in our greenhouse here at the UB and it will be used to produce the vaccines we are currently working on i.e. FMD, Rabies, and Lumpy skin,” Leteane added.
Despite the success of their research and development of the project, the only challenge he outlined has been getting funding, but they have overcome the hurdle with a recent grant from the University of Botswana’s (Office of Research and Development) ORD.
Leteane said even though the project is a collaboration between the University of Botswana and Pitzer College, the agreement is that each institution will contribute equally to the project.
“At present, the University of Botswana, through the Faculty of Science Research and Publications committee, has put forward a grant of P30 000, towards this project, but this is just start up funds. We had initially applied for a P250 000 grant, which would have seen us through the whole project,” he said.
Leteane further said they anticipate that as they develop they will be able to attract more funding from other organizations especially NGOs.
“If we are able to produce an efficacious candidate vaccine cheaply and effectively, our chances of getting funding will be that much greater,” he added.
The plant vaccine project will not only benefit science students with their production and research but will also benefit the agricultural sector and the veterinary.
Other added benefits include staff/student exchanges, which UB anticipates will take off in the next academic year.
In a presentation at UB on Wednesday, Dr. Larry Grill from Pitzer College said the project creates technology and future vaccines of importance to Botswana.
“It also grooms international collaboration opportunities for Botswana,” said Grill.
Asked whether they foresee possible chances of developing the HIV/AIDS vaccine in future, he said, “HIV is a very complex virus as it mutates constantly. If we can find epitopes from the virus that are conserved, immunogenically and confer protective immunity, this technology would be very easy to adapt to production of that HIV vaccine. At the moment we are very far from solving the HIV riddle,” he said.
Other partners are the National Veterinary Laboratory, who will be providing UB with test sera for Rabies, Lumpy skin, and FMD.