Please note: Biotechnology in South Africa lost one of its most promising and
entrepreneurial young scientists when Winston Leukes died suddenly on the
5th of February 2006. An obituary appears at Science in Africa. Below is an article prepared with Dr Winston Leukes, highlighting his daily life as a biotechnologist, which we are now using as a tribute to the significant contribution he made to the South African biotechnology sector.
Words and photos by Steve Kretzmann
Dr Winston Leukes is the Chief Scientific Officer at Synexa Life Sciences, a Cape Town based biotechnology company. Before becoming one of the founder members of Synexa, Winston was head of Biotechnology in the Dept. of Biochemistry, Microbiology and Biotechnology at Rhodes University in Grahamstown and worked as a consultant in the biotechnology industry in South Africa.
Having grown up in Cape Town, Winston studied at UCT and Rhodes. He now manages a number of scientists in his department at Synexa.
One of the things Synexa does is supply products to other laboratories throughout the world that use them for research to try find cures for diseases.
Although we would like to show you a typical day in the life of a biotechnologist, every day seems to be different for Winston and pinning him down to a routine proved rather difficult. What we can do is describe the kind of work he does.
Not only does Winston develop new technology, he continually thinks of new experiments that can be conducted, solutions for technological problems, or he considers different organisms such as bacteria and fungi that can be studied to see if they produce any useful products which can be used in medical research.
Managing a scientific department means he has to liaise with his staff, keep an eye on what's going in the laboratory, examine the results of experiments, maintain quality and investigate where unusual or unexpected results are found. Winston also works with other founder members of the company to develop new technologies and market these to the industry.
At this level, part of Winston's job also involves keeping abreast of what is happening internationally. He often has to fly to conferences and summits across the world.
Meeting From left to right: Winston, chemical engineer Mesuli Mbanjwa,
head of bioprocess design Wade Edwards, and Chief Executive Officer
Paul O'Riordan, meet in the morning to discuss the development and
marketing of the Membrane Gradostat Bioreactor (MGB), an
innovative apparatus to produce enzymes and other products from
as fungi and bacteria.
To develop these products that are capable of producing consistent results and that are good enough to sell to other companies, a lot of people who are specialists in their own areas need to help each other.
Market analysis, economics, engineering and microbiology are all areas of knowledge needed to make the design successful. This is why designs are created by such large teams.
In a meeting like this, colleagues explain what is needed and brainstorm creative solutions. Although these meetings may look boring to the outsider, they are often where the most brilliant ideas start and are refined.
Winston and computer.
Bioreactors are instruments commonly used at Synexa. A bioreactor is a device used to carry out biological processes, such as fermentation, for example. In collaboration with a number of South African universities, Winston Leukes and his team at
Synexa have designed a bioreactor known as a Membrane Gradostat Bioreactor, or an MGB for short. They use the MGB to grow microorganisms by controlling the environment of the MGB and the nutrients added. These microorganisms can produce important products for medical research.
Here Winston explains the computational fluid dynamics model produced by research engineers which shows the physical properties of the MGB.
In simple language this computer model shows how liquids and gases move around the bioreactor that Synexa has designed. The computer model helps them to see that the fluids containing food and oxygen for the organism they grow inside the MGB gets to all areas of the reactor.
So what does the MGB look like? In very basic terms, the MGB is made up of
many very thin cylindrical fibres (like thin straws) that are contained
inside a glass tube. The fibres are made of a type of clay which allows
fluid to ooze out the sides as well as move down the 'straw'. This means
that nutrients (food) can flow down the clay straws and the organisms can
grow on the outside of the straws, getting their food as the nutrient-rich
fluid oozes through to them. The environment inside the glass case
containing the straws can also be controlled. Take a look at the company
website for a more detailed understanding at www.synexagroup.com.
This design is a major breakthrough in biotechnology and one of the core areas of Synexa's business.
This type of MGB is used when the laboratory has to produce lots of a certain type of product. However, when experiments are being done with new or unknown organisms, the single-fiber MGB is used.
This is where there is only one 'straw' in each glass case. But you can rig up to 12 different MGBs at once, all with slightly different environments. When you do this, you are running parallel experiments. You can then compare all twelve experiments and see which environment produced the highest yields.
This is called a single-fibre MGB rig and is shown in the next photograph.
Winston and Wade.
Winston speaks to Wade Edwards, head of bioprocess design, about the working of the MGB rig. The rig (the box-like apparatus which stands between them) contains twelve single-membrane gradostat bioreactors.
This particular rig was set to make a new product from a marine bacterium.
The results from these tests showed that the bacterium made a product that has anti-fungal activity and could possibly be used in medicines to treat fungal diseases.
Winston taking samples.
Winston takes samples from a MGB. This reactor is used to produce large quantities of product once the best conditions have been established in the single-fibre MGB rig.
Working in a biotechnology laboratory requires teamwork - no one person can do everything. Here research and development microbiologist Dr Sheena Fraser, who works in Winston's department, records the settings for the experiments conducted with the MGB.
This careful monitoring of equipment and recording of settings ensure that the experiment can be reproduced. Making notes of their observations also allows the scientists to see interesting developments that often result in new discoveries or improvements to the system.
pH: Sheena analyses samples to check the health of the organism
that produced it. This chemical analysis allows the scientist to
check if the organism is getting enough of the correct type of
food and whether it is being kept at the right temperature.
Calibration: The enzymes and other products produced
in Winston's lab go to Synexa's bioanalytical division.
Here bioanalytical services development manager Thalma Corbett, who is an analytical chemist, and service engineer Gary Graney check the timing of the liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry machine.
The product harvested from the organism in the MGB contains an enzyme that needs to be isolated and purified. Imagine trying to extract gold from the ocean. This is sort of what happens here. Except it is not gold they are after, it's something far more valuable.
Here Thalma and Gary calculate the time it would take for a liquid to leave the detector and reach the collection tube. This is vital for them to know before they can go ahead with analysing and purifying.
A machine like this is very expensive.
Winston, Wade and Mesuli.
Before leaving the lab for the day, Wade and Mesuli speak to Winston about a particular aspect of the bioreactor design that has been bothering them.Together they brainstorm to find a solution.
Winston and Scamp.
After a day at the lab Winston relaxes and gets some exercise by taking his dog, Scamp, for a walk along the promenade in Seapoint near where he lives.
Working as a biotechnologist can be a demanding career, even for a thorough and painstaking person. Experiments need to be monitored over weekends and at night. Sometimes scientists are not able to get away even for Christmas as the living organisms they work with don't take holidays. But the scientists are often richly rewarded for their work when they make new, important and often life-saving discoveries.