Young South African scientists from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) presented research findings on laser-based HIV diagnostics at one the world’s largest photonics conferences taking place in San Franciso, United States of America.

The conference was organized by the Society of Photo-optical Instrumentation Engineers (SPIE) Photonics and it took place from 27 January 2018 to 2 February 2018. SPIE is an international society for optics and photonics.

One of the scientists that presented at the conference is 28-year old Lebogang Thobakgale. Thobakgale was the youngest researcher who represented South Africa's CSIR biophotonics team at the (SPIE) Photonics West conference.

“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 centered on detecting and distinguishing differences between HIV infected cells against non-infected cells,” said Thobakgale.

Thobakkgale presented some of the research 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. Another presentation was based 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.

“I had really 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 too, experience the same challenges. This made me feel confident in the sense that, the problems are not necessarily continent specific, meaning with our own unique innovative thinking and motivation, we have the capabilities to get closer to their technical levels in respect to biosensor research. With that said, we as young SA scientists have a tendency to shy away from the unknown in fear of not succeeding or matching up with international standards. This made me realise the importance of local and international collaborations with like minds, 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 the world stage,” said Thobakgale.

Thobakgale also explained that the research was critical to treat cell-based ailments like Parkinsons, liver and heart disease.