Lebogang Thobakgale, a researcher from the CSIR’s biophotonics research team, recently presented research findings on laser-based HIV diagnostics at a global conference in San Francisco.

Dubbed the world’s largest photonics event, the Society of Photo-optical Instrumentation Engineers (SPIE) Photonics West conference attracts thousands of researchers and technology developers from around the globe to discuss and learn about the latest photonics products and technologies.

Thobakgale presented on Label-free detection of HIV-1 infected cells where lasers are used to trap cells and detect HIV-1 without the need for chemical markers via integration of optical tweezers and photoluminescence spectroscopy.

“The opportunity to present our research findings on laser-driven label-free approaches of detecting HIV-1, which is the novel, high specific and unique, in living biological cells was an exciting experience. The “Label-free” detection project is centred on detecting and distinguishing differences between HIV infected cells against non-infected cells,” said Thobakgale.

He also presented research work on femtosecond laser assisted photo-transfection and differentiation of mouse embryonic stem cells. This entails using lasers to insert DNA into cells for the purpose of making different types of cells.

Thobakgale also had the opportunity to engage with scientists and engineers in the fields of spectroscopy and nanoscience on the advancement of biosensor technology and the challenges they experience in their respective countries. This technology detects and describes the molecular content of samples using lasers and the study of their dimensions at a nano-scale level.

“I had fruitful engagements which made me realise that South Africa is not far behind in advancing their own research with respect to what is being done in other continents. Like many of us, they experience the same challenges,” said Thobakgale.

“This made me realise the importance of local and international collaborations with like-minded people, so as to fast track our training towards being more confident in our own skills, taking calculated risks that lead to more published articles and ultimately, producing technology demonstrators that can be showcased on world stage,” continued Thobakgale.

“Our group aims to apply optical/photonics methods in the biological fields for the purpose of detection, diagnosis and screening of various cell-based diseases that are currently plaguing our country,” said Thobakgale.

Thobakgale said the research was critical to treat cell-based ailments like Parkinson’s, liver and heart disease.

Thobakgale says the skills he gained will assist him to develop a biosensor system to diagnose and screen the progression of cancers in patients undergoing therapy in rural areas.

“At an advanced stage, my wish is to see such a study bring out a new photonics screening database that will help both scientists and medical doctors to better understand the broad spectrum of how these diseases thrive in our communities countrywide,” concluded Thobakgale.

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