SA doctor wins trip to Singularity University with HIV cure idea

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A South African scientist with a plan that could aid researchers working on a cure for HIV has won a trip to the exclusive Singularity University campus in Silicon Valley for an intensive 10 week Global Solutions Program that takes place this winter.

Dr Nick Walker PhD won over judges at a Rand Merchant Bank sponsored event in Johannesburg at which innovators and entrepreneurs presented their concepts or works-in-progress as part of the Global Impact Competition. Singularity University (Singularity U) hosts 14 Impact Competition events throughout the year, and this was the first to take place in Africa.

SingularityU was founded in 2008 by Dr Peter Diamandis and inventor and futurist Ray Kurtzweil as a high concept academy-cum-business accelerator with annual programs designed to help develop cutting edge technologies and businesses to solve the big problems of the world.

Ten contestants were selected for tonight’s final, and presentations to a panel of judges ranged from early stage ideas for Artificially Intelligent doctors to established businesses bringing big data to small-scale farmers. Part of the SingularityU ethos is that nothing is impossible if you can get the right people involved in doing it, and attendees are expected to think about the biggest problems there are.

Walker believes that his business – a cryogenic biobank for storing umbilical stem cells – could help with researchers working on a cure for HIV, and he wants SingularityU’s help to get the funding and team together to research it. He takes as his inspiration a man called Timothy Ray Brown, an American who was diagnosed with HIV in 1995. In 2007, Brown underwent a bone marrow transplant procedure to treat leukaemia. The donor for the operation had a relatively rare genetic mutation, Walker says, which results in a change to cell surfaces which leaves them without a CCR5 receptor protein.

CCR5 receptors are used by the HIV virus to bind to human cells and infect them. People with the genetic mutation Brown was treated with have a natural immunity to HIV.

After his transplant treatment, Brown was found to be HIV free, and remains so to this day.

Brown’s cure hasn’t yet been repeated, and Walker says that this is, in part, because of the difficulties in finding donors with the right mutation matched to HIV patients who are in need of bone marrow stem cell transplants – an operation which is incredibly painful, expensive and risky. Walker says that new techniques for genetically modifying umbilical cord stem cells for use in blood transfusions mean that the time is right to begin researching another solution based on Brown’s case.

To this end, Walker wants to build a bank of stem cells harvested from umbilical cords after birth, which would then be available for modification using a cutting-edge technique called CRISPR/Cas9. CRISPR/Cas9 is used to directly edit gene sequences, and so could then be used to create mutations like the CCR5 receptor shutdown. Ultimately, he wants to build a bank of pre-modified stem cells ready to be used for treating HIV patients.

A lot of time and money stands between Walker and that goal, plus a lot of research to be proven, but SingularityU’s Eric Rasmussen – a judge on the panel and ex-military medical doctor – was confident that by attending the Global Solutions Program, Walker will have a chance at finding the funding and partnerships to get him started.

Of the 10 contestants who presented to judges, five will be given space and support at the new business incubator set up by RMB and FNB after the organisation hosted SingularityU at an internal event last year. Walker will take one of the places; the four runners-up were:

neo-hutiriNeo Hutiri, TechnoVera

After being diagnosed with TB in 2014, Neo Hutiri experienced first-hand the modern hell that epitomises queuing for critical medicine prescriptions in a South African public hospital. Over the course of six months, Hutiri found that it took around three hours per visit just to pick up his medications.

He decided to do something about it.

TechnoVera is a mailbox-like system which allows patients to pick up their medicines from a private locker without having to visit a pharmacy counter. It’s a large cabinet, made up of over 250 lockers, with a PIN entry keyboard on the front. Patients are SMSed a one-time PIN which they punch in on arrival, and their medicines are dispensed from a locker assigned to them for the day. If the TechnoVera detects that medicines haven’t been collected, it automatically SMSs a reminder to the patient in question.

Engineer and "Water Maverick", Bernelle Verster.
Engineer and “Water Maverick”, Bernelle Verster.

Bernelle Verster, Water Maverick

Water expert and academic Bernelle Verster has developed a “floating wetland” designed to purify water and grow food and other produce in contaminated water. A bouyant material, which Verster describes as a “matrix”, is packed with microbes and bacteria that consume toxic materials in waste water. The same matrix is used to bed plants and also host a range of environmental sensors to capture data about their surrounds.

While the principle is tried and tested, says Verster, the matrix material is currently only available overseas. She and her colleagues want to develop a locally-produced alternative, preferably using recycled materials like shredded bottles or old fishing nets.

Impact investor, Pieter Botes.
Impact investor, Pieter Botes.

Pieter Botes, I’m Not Plastic

Former investment banker Pieter Botes wants to put his business experience to good use, by creating for-profit enterprises that tackle the kinds of issues usually left to NPOs. I’m Not Plastic is set-up to reduce landfill caused by waste food and plastic by renting industrial compost machines capable of reducing waste to a material that can be resold in just 24-hours.

Botes says that the anaerobic composters he leases also have the advantages of not releasing methane gas during the biodegrading process, unlike landfill.

The only catch is that most current plastics aren’t compostable, so the other side of I’m Not Plastic will be to encourage or produce packaging materials made from vegetable starch derivatives like PLA (also commonly used in 3D printing).

Wolfgang von Loeper, collides big data and small farmers for fun and profit.
Wolfgang von Loeper collides big data and small farmers for fun and profit.

Wolfgang von Loeper, MySmartFarm

Farmer and tech entrepreneur Wolfgang von Loeper wants to bring the power of cloud analytics and the internet of things to smallholders, with a powerful web dashboard that integrates 10 000 datasets from live weather reports to soil sensors and accounting systems. It’s an all-in-one solution for farm automation which von Loeper and his team have already begun to commercialise for large scale farmers, but he believes will be of enormous benefit to South Africa’s many smaller farms too.

In the practical example given, von Loeper showed off the dashboard warning of an unusually dry spell incoming, and recommending a particular field be irrigated now to prevent crop damage and having to water to excess during the heatwave. With this kind of planning capability, von Loeper says farms can be more productive and efficient, use less water and ultimately turn larger profits too.

//UPDATED 7/4/2016

This article was updated to clarify that at present, Dr Nick Walker PhD is not involved with research around HIV/AIDS or genetic modification of stem cell, but is an employee of a Johannesburg-based stem cell bank.

Adam Oxford

Adam Oxford

Adam is the Editorial Director at htxt media. He has been writing about technology for almost two full decades now. In a previous life, he was the editor of PC Format and Digital Camera Shopper in the UK, before going on to work as a freelance journalist for seven years. His work has appeared in or on Stuff, The Guardian, Linux Format, TechRadar,, PC Gamer, Green Futures, The Journalist, The Ecologist and The Review. Adam moved to South Africa in 2012 and loves 3D printers, MakerFairs and tech hubs. He hates seafood. None of his friends remember this when cooking.