Stellenbosch University’s (SU) faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences has launched the Biomedical Research Institute (BMRI) Research Bronchoscopy Suite. Housed within the division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics, it is hoped the advanced research facility will open more research opportunities that will lead to prevention and better treatment of the killer disease.
The university top brass and academics graced the launch and expressed excitement about the new facility. Professor Gerhard Walzl, head of the division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics said: “The BMRI Research Bronchoscopy facility will pave the way for site-of-disease research for lung diseases, particularly tuberculosis.”
Tuberculosis is considered the most deadly disease in the world with an estimated 417 000 people having died from it in the African region in 2016. According to the WHO, in 2019 alone an estimated 10 million people fell ill with tuberculosis (TB) worldwide. This translates into 5.6 million men, 3.2 million women and 1.2 million children.
Professor Walzl said the institute is strategically situated close to “advanced micro-bacteriology, immunology and genomic research groups and laboratories of the new BMRI facility”, as well as next to “established community-based research sites with a high TB-disease prevalence”. This will put it in a good stead, he said, to launch more major research opportunities at an international scale.
The new theatre boasts hi-tech features such as a Fujifilm Eluxeo Lite System Eluxeo Lite Processor with multi-light technology, advanced infection prevention features and a fully-equipped reception and recovery area. Dr Fanie Malherbe, chief medical officer of the Molecular Biology Clinical Research Unit, said the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS) have been doing bronchoscopies for more than ten years in partnership with the Tygerberg Academic Hospital.
“However”, he said “the demand has grown to such an extent that we needed our own facility. We have multiple big international grants that require bronchoscopies but because we shared the facility with the hospital, patients understandably came first, and our research procedures had to wait.”
He said the Covid-19 also complicated matters further, resulting in a complete halt of research bronchoscopies as the theatre space was needed for patient care.
Added Dr. Malherbe: “It was clear that we needed our own space. In order to allow research to continue the university established a bronchoscopy facility within the faculty. We performed our first procedure successfully in our new theatre on 10 December 2020.”
Bronchoscopy, explained Professor Walzl, is a well-established, relatively safe endoscopic procedure where a camera is inserted into a segment of the lung of interest and a saline solution injected to collect immune cells for examination.
“Bronchoscopies are important for the study of tuberculosis as the lung is both the primary site of infection and the source of transmission. Site-of-disease responses are different to peripheral blood responses. It doesn’t help to search for your lost key only under the streetlight. Sometimes you have to look a bit wider. That is why site-of-disease responses are becoming increasingly important to study,” Professor Walzl explained further.
He said: “The lung also has an alveolar macrophage population that can be crucial in outcomes of many airborne infections. The reason why the lung is so different is that its primary function is to breathe, and not to fight infection. It needs to play a very careful balancing act between maintaining its gas exchange ability and fighting off any invaders. Some pathogens like TB exploit that.”
Professor Nico Gey van Pittius, FMHS vice dean: Research and Internationalisation, who was one of the speakers at the launch, said pointed out the prevalence of TB saying it is “one of the biggest on-going global pandemics, with a great impact on our country and continent.
“We have a strong track record of TB research, extensive international collaborations, and are home to the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence for Biomedical TB Research and SAMRC Centre for Molecular and Cellular Biology. I am excited to see how this new bronchoscopy facility will support our research efforts in the future,” said Professor van Pittius.
Professor Eugene Cloete, Stellenbosch University’s vice-rector for Research, Innovation and Postgraduate studies, congratulated the Molecular Biology Clinical Research Unit on their new initiative. He said the BMRI will “enable cutting-edge research on samples from the site of disease of a range of conditions, including tuberculosis.”
Said Professor Cloete about the new facility: “it forms part of a continuum of high-tech research infrastructure that also includes the research PET/CT facility that we launched in 2019, the biorepository and the immunology laboratories in the BMRI.”