Biochemistry PhD Graduate Wins International Award for HIV and AIDS Innovation
Dr Nick Walker, who graduated from UKZN with a PhD in Biochemistry, has won Singularity University’s Global Impact Competition (GIC) for his innovative stem cell bank concept aimed at finding a cure for HIV and AIDS.
Walker, one of 48 entrants from South Africa, will attend Singularity University’s ten-week Global Solutions Program (GSP) in Silicon Valley in the United States later this year. He will develop his project in South Africa supported by the Singularity University’s international alumni network.
The premise of the competition is the proposal of an idea that could positively influence the lives of a billion people in ten years.
Walker conceptualised a stem cell bank using stem cell-rich umbilical cord blood, generally a waste product at birth. The bank would be a resource for scientists working to isolate the stem cells, editing them to be resistant to HIV, storing, and dispensing them.
This concept is based on promising research emerging from the case of Timothy Ray Brown, an HIV+ man who developed leukaemia, requiring a stem cell transplant which had the unintended effect of sending his HIV into remission, owing to a rare genetic mutation making his donor’s stem cells immune to HIV. Scientists have been attempting to edit stem cells to recreate this case, with mixed results.
‘With my experience gained in stem cell banking at Next Biosciences where I work, and in the constant research and trials ongoing in this space, I decided to propose the idea of the stem cell bank,’ said Walker.
‘At this point it is a concept, but all the science adds up and although a mammoth task, it is possible.’
While Walker is not as yet working towards a cure, his proposal could mean a leap forward in HIV and AIDS research.
‘I am completely humbled by this opportunity,’ said Walker. ‘The other finalists were amazing and I feel very lucky.’
Walker, an Innovation Scientist at Next Biosciences in Johannesburg, received his PhD for his research on the extracellular matrix of muscle stem cells, presenting novel findings confirming the regulatory importance of extracellular matrix factors for successful myogenesis in muscle repair.
Walker’s supervisor, Dr Carola Niesler, said he showed tremendous entrepreneurial drive, always trying to translate his scientific ideas into viable business initiatives.
‘It was a pleasure to supervise someone with such spirit, integrity and high standards - the Singularity University award will certainly allow him to develop his co-interest in business and science. I wish him every success,’ said Niesler.