Our #CapePioneers series showcases innovative local businesses that adapted to build resilience in the face of COVID-19. This week we speak to Artisan Biomed, a precision medicine company that has developed multiple innovations aimed at tracking and understanding non-communicable diseases and viruses.
“If there's too much rigidity in the system, it does not adapt, and under covid-19 pandemic circumstances, where literally every day counts, that is very important.”
What are the core capabilities of your business?
In essence, Artisan Biomed is a precision medicine company. Technically, it’s a subsidiary of the Centre for Proteomic and Genomic Research (CPGR). We have been focusing on high-end genomics technologies, high-end DNA sequencing, or everything up to genome sequencing, and converting these capabilities into a clinical diagnostic utility. This is something that has become the norm internationally, but has not been available locally, save for a few companies who sent samples overseas for testing.
At the core of our business, we are a data interpretation business. We convert the data that can be generated by a DNA sequencer into value for clinicians to enhance diagnosis and treatment of a particular non-communicable disease. So we're talking about complex diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes and that's where these types of technologies are going to play a very, very strong role.
How has your business adapted to Covid-19?
When the pandemic hit South Africa, there were two things that were really going to affect us here. One was the potential loss of income, because of the effect that the pandemic has had on the redeployment of resources in the health ecosystem toward Covid, because basically, all the other tests would be declined. Whatever was on the cards in terms of cancer diagnosis, for example, that was not being prioritised. So, we knew that we would not be able to develop our business and testing in volume, and opted to shift towards a Covid-testing strategy.
We had the capabilities, so we felt that not only could we respond, but that we should respond. We’ve never worked on infectious diseases before, but we have all the necessary equipment, all the relevant resources, So we repurposed a large chunk of the organisation to implement the Covid-testing solution. We began this in the middle of March and we were actually done by the middle of April. There was strong support for the work, particularly in the private sector, and that helped us to respond very quickly in developing our solution.
For example, we wanted to implement a new laboratory information system that would track the tests and results, but needed it to be scalable, and through the assistance of one of our partners were able to find a new provider that is cloud based. In a matter of weeks, we had tested, implemented, and put it so scale, and that system has allowed us to link into 50 hospitals across South Africa. It has allowed us to create a system that is scalable and cost-efficient. That’s just one example of the relationships that we have leveraged to allow us to develop solutions under great pressure.
Tell us more about the tests you developed
We implemented a standard PCR based-test, which is the gold standard. Because we had all the machinery already, it was relatively straight forward to implement it. The test is using swabs – either nasal or oral – which are taken from a person, then sent back to the laboratory and put into the laboratory information management system. The swabs are being used to extract the virus, then certain agents are added to break it open. You then extract the RNA from a virus, which goes into a machine that amplifies a few genes in the model genome. So, the genetic code part of the virus is amplified. If you detect these genes in the sample, the person tested would be identified as having tested positive. All of this is captured and goes through a review process. This would either be at another lab or NHLS or other pathology labs, who would then send the results back to a clinician.
Were there any other products / services developed in response to Covid?
We’ve worked on developing our e-learning offering as well. The people who had been working on training content were focused on developing content that can be delivered in a virtual manner. We are trialling two things here. One is a complete standalone video-based approach where we record training sessions and load them onto an e-learning platform. Then, we have also given lectures over platforms like MSN Teams and Zoom, which can be more engaging for the audience. There will be a strong emphasis on this going forward, where we will have everything from physical to hybrids to completely virtual e-learning training packages.
We’ve also launched a host genetics initiative, where we are looking at the genetics basis of why some people are more susceptible to the coronavirus or have a more severe disease. And so there's most likely a genetic basis for this. In addition to collecting nasal swabs from patients, we will use cheek swabs to collect tissue material to look at the DNA. We will then try and understand not only if you are positive or negative, but what genetic factors would correlate with somebody becoming sick or sicker than somebody else. This is called host genetics, because the virus needs a host, which in this case is the human body. It’s very important to understand this from a scientific perspective, but also for the development of a vaccine, because you need to understand why some people are not developing as severe a disease as others.
Then, one more thing we are working on with other start-ups is developing enzymes for the PCR tests for the Covid tests, so that in future we are not reliant on overseas suppliers. I would also like to stimulate the local eco-system.
What lessons have you learnt over this period?
We had to shift gears to change what the organisation was doing into something completely different and that required a massive effort on behalf of the people that were involved. It showed how difficult it is for people to adapt to the circumstances and further speaks to the quality of our team to adapt under these very difficult circumstances.
Something else we learned is that what normally happened in a week, a month, or even years, now had to be done in hours or days and weeks. That, of course, requires a completely different approach to acting, decision-making and it's an interesting experience in its own right. That is something that we must take into account when developing our innovation ecosystem here going forward. We must consider this very carefully when we talk about innovation ecosystems. If there's too much rigidity in the system, it does not adapt, and under covid-19 pandemic circumstances, where literally every day counts, that is very important.
But yes, I think the biggest thing was, as a collective, how we were able to get this done in a very short amount of time. To offer something that is not available across South Africa and also the ability to leverage and work with others in a cooperative manner. That was really great to see and while that is perhaps a function of the relationships that we have built over time, to be able to leverage that was very good. All of this, of course, was done in a in a mutually beneficial manner.
For more information on Artisan Biomed, visit their website HERE.
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