THE CARNEGIE Corporation of New York has donated $1 093 900 (over R10-million) for the creation of a Master's programme in structural biology at UCT, to be run jointly with the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) facility at Stellenbosch, establishing this field firmly in Africa for the first time.
Structural biology is described as the "paradigm through which we seek to understand living systems". The boost is significant because structural biology, which explains biological phenomena in terms of three-dimensional structure at the atomic level, underpins the development of key aspects of biotechnology. Biotechnology is a priority for South Africa, especially in the rational design of drugs that are critical in the quest for a cure for AIDS as well as the design of enzymes for industrial purposes. The programme, initiated by UCT's Professor Trevor Sewell, Director of the Electron Microscope Unit, will be jointly managed by him and UWC's Professor Don Cowan, Head of the Department of Biotechnology. Programme co-ordinators are Dr David Pugh (UWC Biotechnology) and Professor David McIntosh [Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine (IIDMM)].
The new MSc in Structural Biology will produce a new generation of structural biologists who will invigorate South Africa's biotechnological and medical research efforts. A unique feature of the programme will be the large input by British and American experts in the field, who will be flown out in order to interact directly with the students. "Substantial use will also be made of computers as learning tools, utilizing courseware developed at Birkbeck College, University of London. This will fast-track the development of the field and ensure that students are of international calibre," Sewell added.
According to Sewell, inactivity in this area has stifled academic development. "Structural thought does not inform the daily work of hundreds of biological scientists because it is viewed as foreign and beyond our reach, and at the medical and industrial levels where there had been no impact at all. "The knowledge of structures is the key to insights in biological problems. Solid structural information removes many models that are realistic and based on firm principles. That is why structural determination is accorded high priority in every area of biological research."