Industrial biotechnology research at Curtin Sarawak

by Associate Professor Dr. Michael K. Danquah

Biotechnology has presented itself as a preeminent scientific discipline of the 21st Century with innovative and sustaining applications featuring in a wide range of sectors, including health and the environment.

Industrial biotechnology, through the application of bioprocess and biochemical engineering principles, has driven biotechnological discoveries to produce valuable products, processes and systems essential to meet societal needs.

Some of the main products and processes include biopharmaceuticals such as DNA and protein (and subunit) therapeutics; biofuels such as bioethanol, biodiesel, biohydrogen and microbial fuel cells; primary and secondary metabolites such as amino acids, organic acids, antibiotics, enzymes and specialty chemicals; environmental bioremediation systems such as CO2 biosequestration and wastewater treatment; and biosensing through specific biomolecular affinity interactions.

Associate Professor Michael K. Danquah of the Department of Chemical Engineering, School of Engineering and Science, Curtin Sarawak, is developing a platform for collaborative projects that work at the cutting edge of industrial biotechnology, weaving together knowledge from medicine, engineering and science to tackle biotechnology problems in Malaysia and the world at large.

Key deliverables will include the training of research students in bioprocess and biochemical engineering and endowing them with a wealth of knowledge and relevant skills that will translate to academic or industrial careers. The following are some of the specific research projects in detail.

Immobilised Microbial Consortium for Continuous Effluent Treatment
Production of copious wastewater is an unavoidable consequence of industry and human life. Wastewater is mostly hazardous to human beings, animals, aquatic life and the environment and thus requires treatment before disposal into streams, lakes, seas and lands.

However, in many countries, especially developing countries, wastewater treatment technologies are not effective, primarily due to the high operational cost of conventional treatment processes. The characteristics of the treated water remain undesirable for discharge and this becomes a major environmental issue where the water treatment industry is not strictly regulated.

This project will develop a low-cost approach that integrates primary and secondary wastewater treatment systems using characterised micro-organisms immobilised on smart biocompatible polymeric beds for continuous removal of high concentrations of organics, metal ions, and other minerals with reductions in biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) and chemical oxygen demand (COD). The technology will find applications for rapid treatment of palm oil mill effluent (POME) and other industrial effluents continuously produced by Malaysian industries.

Molecular Stripping of Endotoxins from Plasmid Vaccine Composites
Nucleic acid molecules are heralding a new generation of reverse engineered biopharmaceuticals. One example is plasmid deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) which has an excellent immunological profile as it is free from safety concerns associated with conventional viral vectors for vaccine development. Plasmid DNA harbouring a pathogenic antigen has the capacity to induce both humoral and cell mediated immune responses against invasion. Plasmid DNA is easy to produce and can withstand average temperatures of tropical regions, facilitating easy production and distribution for mass vaccination exercises.
However, in the production of plasmid vaccines, effective endotoxin removal is important to avoid severe side effects such as fever, tissue injury and shock. Endotoxins form part of the outer layer of the cell membrane of most gram negative bacteria, and its removal after intracellular release continues to pose major hurdles in plasmid DNA vaccine purification. Also, the different biomolecular interactions of endotoxins during bioprocessing make their removal problematic.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulatory threshold for endotoxin in plasmid DNA vaccine formulation for in vivo application is 0.1 EU/μg plasmid, and this has been a major obstacle to high throughput preparation of plasmid vaccines. Hence, an efficient scalable removal technology is critical.

This project aims to develop a novel technology that will offer effective endotoxin removal using bioaffinity adsorption with preferential cationic binding. The technology will be applicable for high throughput removal of endotoxins in the manufacturing of other biopharmaceuticals.

Low-cost Polymeric Biosensors for Rapid Pandemic Monitoring
Pathogenic microbes contaminate food and water, causing infectious diseases. It is estimated that infectious diseases cause over 40% of annual global deaths with waterborne infections being a major component.

In addition, the possibility for a multi-million dollar food recall caused by preventable pathogenic contamination has increased the need for more rapid, sensitive and specific methods of detecting and assessing pathogenic microbes in food, water, soil and human samples in order to disable the chain of transmission.

Conventional techniques for pathogen detection which mostly rely on culturing and sub-culturing micro-organisms, culturing clinical samples after antibiotic treatment, analysing antimicrobial characteristics, and biochemical recognition, can be laboriously time-consuming and may prolong effective diagnosis and possible treatment of the patient or isolation of infected material.

This project will make cheap polymeric biosensors for real-time detection of disease pathogens with high sensitivity and specificity using aptamers. The system will be essential for rapidly assessing the quality of water, food or the health of an individual, especially during pandemic outbreaks. Such inexpensive and easy-to-use biosensors would be useful in remote areas and developing countries.

Interested parties, including students, industries and researchers, who are keen to study, support and/or collaborate in these research areas are encouraged to contact Associate Professor Dr. Michael K. Danquah at +085-443 821 or e-mail One can also visit the link for more information.

Dr. Michael Danquah is an Associate Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Curtin Sarawak’s School of Engineering and Science. He completed a PhD in Biochemical Engineering from Monash University, Australia. His doctoral dissertation, which was supported by the Victorian Endowment for Science, Knowledge and Innovation (VESKI), focused on the topic ‘Rapid Production of Therapeutic Plasmid DNA via Pilot-scale Bacterial Fermentation and Monolithic Purification’. Prior to joining Curtin Sarawak, he was an academic in Monash’s Engineering Faculty and later became the Research Leader of its Bio Engineering Laboratory and a Senior Lecturer in its Department of Chemical Engineering.