The Africa Health Research Institute’s Frederick Balagaddé and his team have recently filed two new patents relating to microfluidic device automation and screening for efflux pump displacers.

Balagaddé heads up the AHRI Bioengineering Laboratory, which is host to the first microfluidic chip-making foundry in Africa. Our scientists are working to develop high throughput research platforms and microfluidic systems for scalable diagnostic solutions, aimed at providing low-cost, sample-in-answer-out disease diagnostic devices to address the HIV and TB epidemics.

Automated Microfluidic Device Loading and Operating System

In brief, the lab has developed a plug-and-play system that automates the set-up and operation of microfluidic chips. This invention will cut out the rote work of setting up the chips, saving time and resources that could be more productively applied towards carrying out the investigations that are the primary objective of the microfluidic process. “In spite of their many advantages, microfluidic systems currently require a highly-complicated set-up process that can be compared to having to re-wire your computer motherboard every morning before you can check your email. This invention solves this fundamental problem, which has hindered the widespread usefulness of microfluidic systems and brings us a step closer to introducing these systems into the clinics where they can make a meaningful contribution to global health,” says Dr Balagaddé. The lead scientist on this project was Tafara Kunota, a graduate student in Balagaddé’s laboratory at AHRI.

Screening Method and Apparatus for Drug Efflux Displacement

Efflux pumps are proteins within bacterial cells that contribute to drug resistance by extruding drug molecules from within the cells. Although efflux pump inhibitors—compounds that inhibit the function of efflux pumps—have been demonstrated, their toxic properties have prevented their usefulness in clinical applications. The Balagaddé lab has developed a new bioengineering approach to screening for what we call ‘efflux pump displacers’—non-toxic molecules that the efflux pumps recognize and extrude in preference to the target antibiotics. The new method involves expression of a specific efflux pump in a transporter-deficient cellular host combined with high resolution measurements of cellular changes due to efflux gene expression using a microchemostat. Jared Mackenzie, a graduate student in Balagaddé’s laboratory at AHRI, led this project—working in collaboration with Alissa Myrick from H3D at the University of Cape Town.