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Medical Research South Africa

Polymer innovator helps to transform world of medicine

Although she was encouraged from a young age to become a medical doctor, Dr Gestél Kuyler, from the Department of Chemistry and Polymer Science at Stellenbosch University (SU), decided to follow a different path where her passion for improving lives converges with cutting-edge research and innovation.
Polymer innovator helps to transform world of medicine

Driven by curiosity, guided by mentors, and fuelled by a desire to contribute to medical health research, Kuyler recently obtained a dual-award PhD in the disciplines of polymer science (SU) and molecular pharmacology (Coventry University in the United Kingdom) at SU’s March graduation. She was co-supervised by academics at SU and Coventry University, conducted research at both institutions, and will also be awarded the degree by Coventry University in July this year.

Hailing from George on the Garden Route, Kuyler has an entrepreneurial spirit and an inquisitive mind. “While I was busy with my master’s degree, two friends and I started a successful chemistry tutoring business,” says this member of the Golden Key International Honours Society – the world’s premier collegiate honour society that recognises outstanding academic achievement.

“As the research manager of the Klumperman Research Group at SU, I enjoy the daily dose of novelty and discovery. I also enjoy experimenting in the lab and interacting with my peers and colleagues. This role offers an exciting chance to actively participate in ongoing research and contribute to new project development, particularly with commercial potential.

“We’re in an environment that fosters growth, especially if you make the most of available resources and opportunities.”

PhD research

Kuyler’s doctoral study focused on designing, synthesising and characterising several novel polymers (these polymers are very large synthetic molecules) that can be used to isolate and investigate membrane proteins (MPs). These proteins are attached to or embedded within a cell’s membrane and are involved in a plethora of key cellular processes. She says MPs almost function like “locks” that are specific to certain keys (e.g. drug molecules) to be activated to enter the cell and/or induce a response.

Due to the important role of MPs, they serve as crucial drug targets, which explains why 70% of the drugs approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration target these proteins. It is, therefore, important to maintain the structural integrity of these MPs for accurate drug design to treat cancer, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, migraines, and asthma, among others. These and other conditions develop because of irregularities in the function or structure of MPs.

“However, it’s not easy to study MPs due to the complexities of extracting them from the lipid (fatty compounds) environment which makes up the cell membrane. The difficulties arise from the amphiphilic nature of MPs (including parts that interact with water and parts that don’t) and extracting them in a way that stabilises both the hydrophobic (water-repelling) and hydrophilic (water-attracting) parts. If this is not achieved, the protein can lose its true structure and function which is required for the accurate development of therapeutics.

“Despite these hurdles, researchers and drug developers must understand the structure and function of these drug targets to design and create new, efficient therapeutics. This understanding can not only reduce the time and cost of drug development but holds the potential to enhance the efficacy of drugs, ultimately minimising side effects and reducing the cost thereof.”

Kuyler says the development of novel polymers offers several advantages over currently commercially available polymers due to the way that they are produced. “The synthetic approach we employ provides several customisation possibilities, providing a great platform for further development in our research group.”

Nanosene

Kuyler’s PhD research not only led to the development of novel polymers, but also to the filing of an international patent that formed the core technology of Nanosene, a SU spin-out company that she co-founded with Prof Bert Klumperman from SU’s Department of Polymer Science in 2022. She leads Nanosene as its CEO.

In 2021, Kuyler participated in an idea validation (testing and assessing the feasibility, viability, and potential of a business idea) programme at the LaunchLab (SU’s technology and entrepreneurship incubator). Here the concept of Nanosene emerged and was validated through interactions with potential customers, industries, and stakeholders.

“This experience fuelled my enthusiasm for commercialising polymeric materials for molecular drug target identification and research. Nanosene was established to advance the development and commercialisation of innovative polymers and is now the official platform for translating interesting and commercially viable intellectual property (IP) originating from our research group.”

Nanosene is the first bespoke polymer innovator and supplier from Africa that currently focuses on developing and producing amphiphilic polymers to isolate molecular drug targets.

“This breakthrough technology can transform the world of medicine by empowering researchers and drug developers to explore new avenues for treating various diseases,” says Kuyler.

“We have successfully commercialised our first polymers through Nanosene, along with a strategic manufacturing and distribution collaboration with Cube Biotech, a leading biotechnology company in Germany.”

Kuyler mentions that in February this year, Nanosene emerged as the overall winner at the Academia-Industry Training (AIT) Swiss African Science and Business Innovators (SASBI) Conference in Lagos, Nigeria. It was the first time that Nanosene was pitched at the event. Nanosene has been selected as one of the top 12 African startups to attend the Swiss Residency Week in Switzerland in May 2024. It was also recently selected as one of the eight South African startups to join the country’s delegation at VivaTechnology 2024, Europe’s premier event for technology and innovation in Paris in May 2024.

“This experience has energised the team and reiterates the great potential of what we have to offer,” says Kuyler.

She adds that researchers, academic collaborators, pharmaceutical companies, biotech companies, and protein manufacturers will benefit from the work being done at Nanosene.

With a PhD under her belt, Kuyler says she is eager to dedicate more time to the growth and advancement of Nanosene and the team as they strive for greater heights.

She describes herself as a nature lover who enjoys the outdoors.

“I take every opportunity to be outside. I have a keen interest in plants and have recently delved into wild mushroom foraging. Exploring through hiking is another passion, and we’ve completed several multi-day hikes, including a memorable journey through the northern part of Kruger National Park.

“I also love to spend time with friends and family, travelling, and enjoying good food and wine.”

Stellenbosch University
Stellenbosch University (SU) is committed to the pursuit of knowledge, research and innovation, in service of society, and provides a globally relevant, world-class centre for learning and development.
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