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A gold medal for tuberculosis molecular diagnosis

- Wits University

It's World TB Day and award-winning microbiologist Bavesh Kana knows molecular diagnostics can take on this lethal bacterial disease that still kills millions.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recognises 24 March  as World TB Day, the theme of which this year is Yes! We can end TB!

The theme aims to inspire hope and encourage high-level leadership, increased investments, faster uptake of new WHO recommendations, adoption of innovations, accelerated action, and multisectoral collaboration to combat the TB epidemic.

Stepping up on the high-level leadership and adoption of innovations front is Wits Professor Bavesh Kana who directs the Wits node of the Centre of Excellence for Biomedical TB Research (CBTBR).

Professor Bavesh Kana is Director and CEO of the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence for Biomedical TB Research. He is the team lead of the Biomimicry Diagnostic Verification Controls Team, which won the Innovation Award: Corporate Organisation

Earlier this month Kana was awarded a Gold Medal at the 9th Scientific Merit Awards hosted by the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC). These awards are among South Africa’s most prestigious and are dedicated to contributions to health research in South Africa.

Gold medals are awarded to established senior scientists who have made seminal scientific contributions that have impacted people’s health, especially that of those living in developing countries.

Innovation in molecular diagnostics

Molecular diagnostics are laboratory methods that are used to help identify a disease – or  the risk of developing a disease – by sequencing a patient’s DNA or RNA for markers of potential diseases in future.

Kana’s research focuses on TB diagnostics, vaccines and the discovery of new TB drug targets. More recently, he has directed efforts towards developing new molecular diagnostics for a range of diseases. His lab is investing in developing vaccine production capacity for Africa. This investment will enable greater access to diagnostics in the developing world.

WATCH Professor Bavesh Kana in a Wits #STEMShowcase.

Amongst the innovations Kana and his lab have engineered is biomimicry for TB diagnosis. Biomimicry is the imitation of the models, systems, and elements of nature for the purpose of solving complex human problems.

Kana and his Biomimicry Diagnostic Verification Controls team won the 2021 National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)-South32 Innovation Award: Corporate Organisation, for their use of biomimicry to verify the accuracy of diagnostic tests for Covid-19 and other infectious diseases.

“This award was given to our team for using biomimicry to develop control reagents that allow for verification of molecular diagnostics for tuberculosis and Covid-19. The battle against diseases such as Covid-19 and tuberculosis require fast and accurate mass testing. To ensure that diagnostic tests are being executed correctly, control material such as live coronavirus that deliver the expected result is needed. However, these organisms are infectious and cannot be used to verify diagnostics, which became a major stumbling block. We developed a suite of biomimicry-based controls where harmless bacteria were modified to include genetic elements from organisms such as SARS-CoV-2, thus mimicking them in the testing platforms,” writes Kana.

WATCH this NSTF video in which Wits Professor Bavesh Kana explains TB diagnostics and biomimicry.

Amongst many research and teaching, supervising and mentoring accolades, Kana received the Vice-Chancellor’s Innovation Award (2019) for the development of the Smartspot technology and a spin-off company making an impact worldwide.

The Smartspot was built on the successful introduction of diagnostic quality controls in the form of accurately measured samples, deposited on ‘spots’ on a paper card, which can be easily shipped to wherever molecular diagnostic instruments are deployed.

For this innovation Kana first received the Wits Enterprise Innovators Award (2016) for licensing intellectual property and products to a commercial venture for marketing and development.

Kana holds a BSc Biochemistry and Genetics with distinction, a BSc Honours Biochemistry, and a PhD Mycobacteriology. all from Wits University. He is a member of the South African Academy of Science and has spent time working and training at several international institutions including the Russian Academy of Sciences, Columbia University and Harvard Medical School.

The SAMRC supported the early stages of Kana’s career with a career development award and thereafter, his lab, through scholarships for his students and focused grants on various aspects of TB and later Covid-19.

In addition, Kana was appointed at the SAMRC as a consultant and assisted in drafting a National Strategy for TB Research. He has represented South Africa on the BRICS TB Research Network.