A University of Dundee lecturer's close collaboration with academic colleagues in Edinburgh, the Netherlands and Moscow, has resulted in a novel vaccine that could finally prove decisive in a lengthy global battle against a contagious bacterium that kills more than half-a-million people annually, mostly residing in low-income countries.
Streptococcus is responsible for often fatal – certainly life-changing – cases including meningitis, bacterial pneumonia and necrotising fasciitis, and thoughts of an actual cure across the board raises one's hopes and expectations. How you succumb to what is otherwise known as StrepA appears to the layperson frighteningly like that of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bacteria spreads by direct contact with discharges from nose and throat of an infected individual with risk of spreading an infection, highest when a person is suffering from 'strep throat'. Also, by contact with infected wounds or sores on the skin. In Scotland, StrepA, as such, is well under control but despite this, its deadly seriousness is underscored by a local headline from last year: University student rushed to hospital with 'flu symptoms' has both legs amputated after doctors find meningitis
World Health Organisation (WHO) reports indicate the disease is at its worst in what has been labelled the 'meningitis belt' of sub-Saharan Africa, stretching from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east. It is especially these populations that are in dire need of help. To this end, Dundee-based Dr Helge Dorfmueller has created 'RhaPSeda', a novel vaccine production platform that could prove decisive in the battle against StrepA.
Despite a 100-year hunt for a vaccine, none currently exists. What's worse is that the pathogen shows increasing signs of antibiotic reisistance. RhapSeda's patent technology is aimed at combatting these barriers, and it also significantly reduces manufacturing costs, taking matters a vital step closer to a solution to what is a global killer.
Dr Dorfmueller is a Wellcome Trust and Royal Society Sir Henry Dale Fellow in the Division of Molecular Microbiology, and his research is conducted in collaboration with Dr Nina van Sorge at University Medical Center Utrecht, The Netherlands, Dr Jeroea Codd, University of Leiden, Netherlands, Professor Susan Uhrin, University of Edinburgh, and DR Torgov, Dr Danilov and Dr Veselovisy, N D Zelinsky Institute of Organic Chemistry, Moscow, Russia.
The enterprise is one of no less than 90 semi-finalist academic entrepreneurial projects in this year's 'Converge Challenge' – Scotland's largest company-creation programme for the university sector. All 18 of the country's universities are represented in the final shortlist. In a reflection of the current Covid crisis and ongoing climate change concerns, the three dominant themes are life-sciences, wellbeing and net zero.
Converge director, Dr Claudia Cavalluzzo, says she is always amazed at the inventiveness and creativity of the projects on show, even more so with the difficult times everyone is experiencing due to the pandemic. She explains that the programme exists as a pathway for 'innovators of the future' to advance their ventures by receiving the right support, at the right time.
In the wellbeing space, Yvonne Wryoslawska, a graduate from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, is looking to harness the power of music to address postnatal depression which affects between 10-15% of new mums in the UK. A number of net zero-focused projects include Mako Aerospace Ltd, founded by University of Strathclyde graduate Keiran Duncan, with a mission to create the engine technologies required for sustainable flight – the first product offering up an electric alternative to the jet engine aimed at reducing aircraft costs by up to 60% and enabling all-electric flights in today's battery technology.
Many of the semi-finalists are early-stage projects on the very first steps of their commercialisation journey where help such as that of Converge proves vital towards success or failure. A clear trend is environmental themes including renewable biomass briquettes, an advanced robotic system that sifts out contaminants at recycling centres, natural plant-based yarns for sustainable fashion homegrown and spun in the UK, and yet another robot that promotes and instils handwashing behaviour in schoolchildren.
From now on, nothing is left to chance. The Converge cohort now attend intensive business training followed by a series of masterclasses from an impressive network of professional advisors. Chiene + Tait's partner, Neil Norman, comments: 'This is an exciting partnership... an initiative which continues to get bigger and better'.
The finals will be staged later in the summer with prize money of £50,000 for the winner and £20,000 for the runner-up towards their respective ventures. In the last decade, Converge has trained over 400 entrepreneurs and created more than 200 companies with over 500 high-value jobs. Follow-on funding raised has also topped £100 million. Converge is funded by the Scottish Funding Council, Creative Scotland and every Scottish university, plus a who's who of professional partners and hosted by Heriot-Watt University.
Former Reuters, Sunday Times, The Scotsman and Glasgow Herald business and finance correspondent, Bill Magee is a columnist writing tech-based articles for Daily Business, Institute of Directors, Edinburgh Chamber and occasionally The Times' 'Thunderer'