The cohort of 30, the second group to benefit from the Africa Biosciences Hubs (AfriBIOHubs) training initiative, left fulfilled after the conclusion of a week-long Enzyme Manufacturing Masterclass (EMM) course held in June this year. The trainees gained invaluable insights on optimizing available resources, collaborating in research, and commercializing their lab work.

The Enzyme Manufacturing Masterclass is a short hands-on course that strengthens researchers’ capacity to produce essential enzymes for molecular biology including DNA polymerases for PCR. 

Joshua Magu, a technician at the AfriBIOHubs, says that the 2024 Enzyme Manufacturing Masterclass (EMM2024) “delivered”. In the 2023 one, he was a trainee. This year, he was among the trainers. For him, the 2024 edition was smoother, better organized, and gave him a chance to understand what he was unable to in last year’s training. 

In the EMM, trainees, who are postgraduate researchers in biosciences, were taught how to navigate the challenge of a dearth of reagents, high cost of enzymes, and challenges in commercialization of their work. 

The trainees came in with high expectations. Pamela Khasandi, a researcher at The Kenya Institute of Primate Research, said she was “committed to making meaningful contributions to the field of biology and improving human health” and that she hoped the lessons learnt here would play “a pivotal role in helping me achieve my career goals”.

Robinson Irekwa, a Researcher at Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), said,My primary goal is to gain hands-on experience with the latest techniques and technologies used in enzyme production and purification, which are crucial for my career aspirations in molecular biology and biotechnology.”

Loice Kanda, a graduate student now at KAVI-ICR/KEMRI Wellcome Trust, highlighted her aims as “learning how to design primers and how to synthesize and produce enzymes/proteins.”

Increasing the pool of trainees, the AfriBIOHub aims to have as much impact on early career scientists as possible as they kickstart their professions. Last year, they had 20 trainees. This year, the pool increased by 50%.

The Africa Biosciences Hub (AfriBIOHub) is a capacity development program within the Striga Smart Sorghum for Africa (SSSfA) project, aiming to support research, innovation, and bio-entrepreneurship in the field of genome editing.

But a high cost of equipment, reagents and limited training of personnel has been noted as the three biggest impediments to molecular biology research in Africa. The Kenyatta University molecular biology lab, for example, spends at least USD 5,000 annually for routine work on Taq polymerase – a basic enzyme used in most experiments.

Susan Musembi, a lecturer in the Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology and Biotechnology of Kenyatta University says that the EMM “targets biotech researchers to upskill or retool them in synthetic biology.”

“They (the trainees) are being trained to develop important reagents for molecular biology to accelerate research within their own labs. One of the main constraints for molecular biology research in Kenya and Africa is access to molecular biology reagents. By training researchers using technologies that are available and that they are familiar with, they will be able to synthesize some of these reagents for their research work,” she says.

 “This is important because currently the supply chain for molecular biology reagents in the region is complicated. It is difficult for researchers in the academic field to access the reagents and it takes a lot of time, and sometimes even the cost of shipping these reagents is as high as the cost of the reagents. If researchers can synthesize high value reagents using technology, then it will greatly accelerate their research. And that is the purpose of AfriBIOHubs: to retool, upskill and introduce technology to researchers that could benefit not only their research but also be a source of product for the research communities in other fields.”

Alongside these efforts to build the capacity for local scientists in bio-manufacturing of essential molecular biology reagents, AfriBIOHubs has taught them a few crucial business skills.We need our researchers to understand that their research outputs need to be translated into products or processes that will have an impact on society. By merging those two areas (technical skills and entrepreneurial knowledge, attitude and skills) researchers will be able to better design their research with an end-user in mind,” Dr Musembi says.

She calls commercialization of science in Africa “a nascent space” due to challenges in understanding the process of product commercialization. “AfriBIOHubs informs the scientists on the commercialization pathway of biotech products so they know how to go about the licenses and standards, and so they understand the market,” she explains.

It was a week of great results. Participants were engaged prior to commencement of the physical activity, including through theoretical, online sessions. This meant that there was seamless transition into practical lab-work. 

Willy Kibet, a postgraduate student at Kenyatta University, called it “exciting and educative in cutting-edge biotechnology”. “Enthusiastic early career scientists from different institutions were brought together to produce essential enzymes – DNA polymerases for PCR,” he said.

Edna Macharia, a postgraduate student at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), says she has gained great insights from the EMM. “Having developed a field-based Loop Mediated Isothermal Amplification (LAMP) kit for diagnosis in my MSc, one major problem I faced was trying to make it as affordable as possible for remote labs. Learning through the EMM, I have seen ways that I can explore to make enzymes for LAMP locally to reduce the cost of the kit,” she beamed.