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3 December 2019
Starting Up & Saving Lives With (Nano)Science: Atherton Mutombwera’s Tale of Research Innovation Around The World

(Published - 3 December 2019)

There are about a billion cases of fever and headache and muscle aches each year in Africa Most of those are caused by perfectly innocent causes – regular old ‘flu, for example. But those same symptoms can also be signs of something far more serious: ebola, denge fever, or any one of a range of emerging and dangerous pathogens that can cause deadly pandemics.

“Here’s the problem: if somebody is suspected of having one of these diseases, their blood is taken and sent to one of about 14 labs on the African continent for testing. It costs about $100 to be able to diagnose one person, and it can take a while. So we need to find ways of diagnosing these diseases that are more efficient.”

As founder and CEO of Hutano Diagnostics Ltd., that is exactly what Atherton Mutombwera is doing – as he explained to nanoscience students, academics and industry experts at the South African Nanoscience And Nanotechnology Summer School 2019. Atherton’s talk, Highs and Lows of Starting Up: A Tale of Research, Innovation and Commercialization from 2014-2019, explored the potential benefits of nanoscience to medicine, and the challenges of transforming science and ideas into a business that can make a difference in people’s lives.

Hutano Diagnostics Ltd is a start-up developing a diagnostic and surveillance platform for diseases caused by emerging and dangerous pathogens which cause recurring epidemics in Africa.

“Emerging and dangerous pathogens (EDPs) can cause epidemics on our continent,” he said. “So it’s important when someone is infected with these diseases that we identify, isolate and manage the patient – and by diagnosing people properly we can help terminate the chain of transmission.”

The impact can be significant – a recent study done at Imperial College, for example, revealed that an effective and affordable Ebola diagnostic test could have been a game-changer in the 2014 Ebola outbreak: the number of lives lost would have been reduced by a third; and 32% of the money spent dealing with the outbreak could have been saved.

Born in Zimbabwe, Atherton graduated with an undergraduate degree in Pharmacy from Nelson Mandela University, then obtained an MSc in Nanoscience as a Mandela Rhodes Scholar in the National Nanosciences and Technologies Platform (NNTP), and went on to complete an MBA at the University of Oxford.

His research focus during the MSc (appropriately) was the development of a rapid diagnostic device for Ebola. But it’s not just about information and scientific know-how, he noted. It’s also about collaboration and conversation

“Identify the right questions, and ask them of the right people – and then chase down those answers with all your might until you find them,” he said. “Find out what your colleagues in the scientific community think about aptamers, say – both those who favour them and the critics. And speak to the people on the front line, who’re handling the issues directly. What do they see? What do they think? What do they need?”

An African Solution For A Global Health Problem

So what did the team at Hutano come up with?

Well, it’s a device that looks a bit like a pregnancy test, really – but it uses blood instead, and it can not only test individual patients, but help track pandemics as well.

“You take blood, add it to the device – and in ten minutes you know what disease the patient has,” Atherton said. “And what’s more, a message is sent from the diagnostic to an online platform that tells us where the patient is located, and is combined with a lot of other information that can help us predict where the disease is going to spread.”

Conventional tests employ antibodies, but Hutano’s platform makes use of aptamers instead, which also have an innate ability to bind to target molecules, but are more robust. “They don’t need to be kept in a fridge, and don’t expire after three years,” Atherton explained. “That means communities without reliable access to electricity can still store and stockpile medicines.”

At the end of the day, it’s all about community – and the dedication to something bigger than the individual.

“You need to go the distance when you’re building a business,” he said. “It’s not just about having ideas. It’s about the execution of ideas. And you’re not going to be able to execute if you don’t have a real passion for it.”

Or, he hastened to add, the proper support structures.

“If someone wants to start a company - and especially if someone wants to grow a company, they need to do it in an environment that empowers them to do so.,” he said. “It took a village to grow Hutano - a tribe of people with a shared vision. So find your tribe, and go make people’s lives better.”