Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : June 11th 2017 Contents SUNDAY 11 JUNE, 2017 – UWI TODAY 9
“Nature provides a lot of the resources we need,”
says Antonio Ramkissoon, giving a brief but complete
statement on the value of natural products. A PhD student
in microbiology, Antonio is one of a new generation of
young researchers in the Faculty of Science and Technology
exploring the potential of biological-based products for
medical treatment and commercialisation.
Working in the Life Sciences Department, he is involved
in several projects. His thesis focuses on the development of
antibiotic drugs from microorganisms. He has successfully
identified several novel or potential compounds with
antibiotic effects and is currently working on measuring
their safety for human use and tweaking the strength of
effect. Antonio is also working on a plant-based product
that repels mosquitoes and kills larvae. This is very promising
A third project he has worked on is the anti-fungal
effects of certain types of seaweed on specific crops.
This research has been continued by another young
microbiology researcher at Life Sciences, Omar Ali.
“Utilising two local seaweeds we have extracted a liquid
and applied it to tomatoes and bell peppers,” Omar explains.
The results have been dramatic. Not only did the
seaweed cause a major reduction in disease, it also increased
the growth of the plants and their yields. Currently Omar
is doing molecular analyses to determine the interactions
taking place at the gene expression levels to help explain
the mechanisms of action of these extracts.
For both Antonio and Omar the ultimate ambition is
to see their research lead to the development of natural
products – medicines, pesticides, insect repellants. Under
the guidance of their supervisors and researchers, they
are pioneers in what could, with the appropriate strategy
and investment become, a Trinidad and Tobago-based
biotechnology industry. They are doing their part.
even larger were it not for the longstanding embargo against
the Caribbean nation. In recent years Cuba has developed
innovative natural products such as Heberprot-P, which is
used in the treatment of diabetic foot ulcers; CimaVax-EGT,
a lung cancer vaccine for patients in the advanced stage;
and Theraloc, an antibiotic for the treatment of lung and
“Cuba is a best model,” says Professor Jayaraman,
“whatever industry they have is home grown.”
Dr. Ramsubhag agrees, “they have invested tremendously
for decades in biotechnology (almost US$1 billion in the late
1980s). A lot of their industry is based on novel compounds
they developed into drugs. It is one of their biggest foreign
exchange earners. Trinidad and Tobago has probably equal
opportunities or more with our biodiversity.”
A Research Culture
Antonio’s novel compound discovery is one of several
natural product-based research activities taking place
at the Faculty of Science and Technology. Another PhD
student, Tresha Dobson, from the Chemistry Department
has isolated several novel compounds, some of which have
antibiotic effects. One in particular has been found to
have effects very similar to a drug used in the treatment of
“We need to invest in this kind of research,” Ramsubhag
says of the high potential of these biological compounds.
Another graduate student in the Life Sciences
Department, Omar Ali, is conducting very promising
research into the effects of Trinidad’s seaweed on specific
agricultural crops. In addition to his microorganism
research, Antonio was also involved in the seaweed project
and is currently working on what has the potential to be
groundbreaking work on a natural anti-mosquito product.
Many such projects are going on in partnership with the
An important aspect of this research is that it is driven
by students. In the words of the Department, Life Sciences
is the “direct descendent” of the Imperial College of Tropical
Agriculture, the research institution founded in 1922 that
would become the UWI St. Augustine Campus. Although
UWI has expanded its role to teaching, departments such
as Life Sciences place major emphasis on facilitating a
research culture and empowering students with an interest
and capacity for original and impactful scientific inquiry.
“All it requires is a spark,” Professor Jayaraman says,
speaking about unlocking the research potential in students.
“We give them enough opportunities to pick up threads.
We don’t hand-hold them. That is not research. We teach
them the procedures and then we let them go, providing
guidance and suggestions. That freedom is very important.
If you have freedom the mind will be liberated, clear and
they will think on their own.”
Dr. Ramsubhag says the good researchers are not
always the ones who get the highest grades. He points to
attributes like self-motivation, capacity for hard work and
good observational skills.
“You need to have a thirst for knowledge and exploring
new ideas,” he says, pointing out that these attributes can be
unlocked in students once they are exposed to new ideas
and scenarios. Because of its international relationships,
the Life Sciences Department allows students to collaborate
with some of the top experts in the field and use the latest
Investing in T&T’s
The gains made by UWI scientists in biotechnology
are impressive but much more can be achieved with
sustainable funding. Through mechanisms like the Research
and Development Impact (RDI) Fund, UWI St. Augustine
strives to support research with a strong potential for the
development of the region, but its resources are limited.
Likewise there is enormous competition for international
Professor Jayaraj Jayaraman
PHOTO: ARTHUR SUKHBIR
“Even for me
that was one
of the biggest
effects I have
seen in my
Microbiology MPhil candidate, Omar Ali prepping a
plate to do a gene expression at the plant microbe lab.
PHOTO: ATIBA CUDJOE
Microbiology PhD candidate, Antonio Ramkissoon at
the flow hood where most of the microbial work is done.
PHOTO: ATIBA CUDJOE
Faculty members like Dr. Ramsubhag and Professor
Jayaraman and student researchers invest their time and in
some cases their own money to further research that can
bring massive dividends to Trinidad and Tobago. But they
can only do so much.
“We need significant investment in our laboratory
infrastructure,” says Dr. Ramsubhag. “But more importantly
we need grant funding to hire dedicated human resources.
This is necessary for isolation and downstream processing.
We need post-doctoral scientists to do the full spectrum
from discovery to development.”
With these resources in place, he says The UWI can
take a potential drug up to laboratory trials and animal
models. The next step will be working with the international
pharmaceutical companies, relationships that the Faculty of
Science and Technology is currently building.
Professor Jayaraman points again to the Cuban model,
in which the Government made substantial investments in
biotechnology and the nation is now reaping the reward.
“This kind of research leading to product development
is strategic and it deserves local support. We do not wish
to seek outside support for these kinds of projects because
of the sensitivity of the research and the intellectual rights,”
In the World Economic Forum’s “Global
Competitiveness Index,” innovation remains a consistent
drag on the nation’s competitiveness and its investment and
in research and development ranks close to the bottom of
the 140 economies ranked.
“We need to change the perception of society when it
comes to research,” Jayaraman says. “We must have a vision.
We are sitting on a treasure which is a big, sustainable
resource and we have to use it to sustain our economy.”
Links Archive June 10th 2017 June 12th 2017 Navigation Previous Page Next Page