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13 May 2019 | Story Zama Feni | Photo Charl Devenish
Dr Quinton Meyer and Marlena Visagie
National Control Laboratory Deputy Director, Dr Quinton Meyer (right), and Marlena Visagie, Quality Assurance Manager, at the laboratory within their facilities at the University of the Free State.

The University of the Free State-based National Control Laboratory for Biological Products (NCL) has maintained its esteemed status as a pharmaceutical testing laboratory after the South African Accreditation System (SANAS) further endorsed its quality-management systems as of high standard according to the International Standards Organisation’s requirements.

The Director of the NCL, Professor Derek Litthauer, said their laboratory – which is also approved by the World Health Organisation (WHO) – has again achieved the international testing standards. The cherry on top was that the NCL also received a certificate of Good Manufacturing Compliance (GMP) from the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA). 

NCL is for Africa and the World 

Some of the factors that make the NCL an esteemed institution, is the fact that it is one of 12 laboratories worldwide to perform vaccine testing for the WHO; the NCL is the only vaccine-testing laboratory in the country that performs the final quality-control testing of all human vaccine batches marketed in South Africa on behalf of SAHPRA. 

For example, Prof Litthauer said that the influenza vaccine batches currently available on the South African market, were tested by the NCL for quality before authorising their release for sale to the public. This process is followed for all human vaccines used in SA.

 “In our role as vaccine-testing laboratory for the WHO, the NCL helps to ensure that the vaccines purchased through the WHO prequalification programme for international distribution to resource-limited countries, meet the high standards of quality, safety, and efficiency. 
The NCL was one of the first full members of the WHO NCL Network for Biologicals, which consists of full and associate members of regulatory authorities from more than 30 countries.

The NCL systems are world-class

Prof Litthauer said this achievement is recognition that their laboratory complies with specific international standards with respect to its quality-management system. 
“In practice, it means that the laboratory has all the quality systems in place to ensure high-quality test results. The GMP certification is a further step, meaning that laboratory testing is on the expected level for any pharmaceutical testing laboratory and manufacturer. It is a very strict certification.”

He further mentioned that the NCL is also licensed as a pharmaceutical manufacturer. “Although we do not manufacture, we have to comply with manufacturing standards.”
“It is rare for a pharmaceutical testing laboratory (such as the NCL) outside of a manufacturing context to qualify for both certifications. It means that the NCL complies with exceptionally strict standards for pharmaceutical labs anywhere in the world,” he said.
The certification provides the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority, the World Health Organisation, and other national control laboratories around the world, with the confidence that the test results from the NCL can be trusted.


There can be no compromise for quality 

The NCL Quality Assurance Manager, Mrs Marlena Visagie, said, “It is essential that the NCL complies with the highest international quality-assurance standards to ensure that all the lot-release operations, such as manufacturing review and quality testing, are performed in a reliable and reproducible manner.”

“There can be no compromise when it comes to the quality of medicines which are made available to the public,” she said.

“What makes this special, is that the NCL does not only comply with international ISO/IEC standards for pharmaceutical testing, but also with the additional GMP standards required by a pharmaceutical manufacturer. This means that the NCL must ensure that all its operations, including everything from the way documents are compiled and stored, to the maintenance of equipment and infrastructure as well as staff competency, are performed according to international guidelines.”

All NCL staff share vision of excellence

Prof Litthauer said the NCL has a staff complement of 15 technical, administrative, and support staff.  Four staff members have PhDs, and the rest of the technical staff have master’s or bachelor’s degrees or are trained as medical technologists. “At the moment, our biggest problem is to get enough suitable space to expand our testing,” he said.

Prof Litthauer said, “All the staff members at the NCL share the vision of excellence, which makes this kind of achievement possible.”
The NCL will host the third annual meeting of the WHO NCL Network in November of this year and will then be reassessed again by the WHO as part of the normal three-year cycle of assessments.  

News Archive

Research by experts published in Nature
2011-06-02

 
The members of the research group are, from the left, front: Christelle van Rooyen, Mariana Erasmus, Prof. Esta van Heerden; back: Armand Bester and Prof. Derek Litthauer.
Photo: Gerhard Louw

A  research article on the work by a team of experts at our university, under the leadership of Prof. Esta van Heerden, and counterparts in Belgium and the USA has been published in the distinguished academic journal Nature today (Thursday, 2 June 2011).

The article – Nematoda from the terrestrial deep subsurface of South Africa – sheds more light on life in the form of a small worm living under extreme conditions in deep hot mines. It was discovered 1,3 km under the surface of the earth in the Beatrix Goldmine close to Welkom and is the first multi-cellular organism that was found so far beneath the surface of the earth. The worm (nematode) was found in between a rock face that is between 3 000 and 12 000 years old.

The research can shed some new light on the possibility of life on other planets, previously considered impossible under extreme conditions. It also expands the possibilities into new areas where new organisms may be found.

These small invertebrates live in terrestrial soil subjected to stress almost for 24 hours They live through sunshine, rain, scorching temperatures and freezing conditions. Through time they developed a means to cope with harsh conditions. Terrestrial nematodes (roundworms, not to be confused or related to earthworms) are among those very tough small invertebrates that deal with those conditions everywhere. After insects they are the most dominant multi-cellular (metazoan) species on the planet having a general size of 0,5 to 1 mm and are among the oldest metazoans on the planet, Nature says in a statement on the article.

They inhabit nearly every imaginable habitat form the deep seas to the acid in pitcher . Some nematodes simply eat bacteria and these are the ones we study here. Terrestrial nematodes have developed a survival stage that can take them through hard times (absence of food, extreme temperatures, too little oxygen, crowding, and more).

At the head of the research was Prof. Gaetan Borgonie of the Ghent University in Belgium and a world leader in the discipline of nematode research. He was brought into contact with the South African research leader, Prof. Esta van Heerden, who set up a cooperation agreement with the University of Ghent and Prof. Borgonie. Prof. Van Heerden manages the Extreme Biochemistry group at the UFS and the research was funded by several research grants.

The search for worms began in earnest in 2007, but it was soon clear that the sampling strategy was insufficient. A massive sampling campaign in 2008-2009 in several mines led to the discovery of several nematodes and the new nematode species Halicephalobus mephisto. It is named after the legend of Faust where the devil, also known as the lord of the underworld is called Mephistopheles.

Nature says special filters had to be designed and installed on various boreholes. Unfortunately, there is no easy way of finding a magic formula and designs had to be adapted by trial and error; improving existing designs all the time. The work of the UFS Mechanical Workshop, which manufactured, adapted and helped design it, was crucial in this respect. Filters were left on the holes for varying periods, sometimes for a few hours and sometimes for months. Prof. Derek Litthauer from the UFS played a big role in sampling, filter designs and coming up with ideas for names for the new nematode with Prof. Borgonie.

Research showed that the nematodes can live in the deep for up to 12 000 years. Three students – Armand Bester, Mariana Erasmus and Christelle van Rooyen from the UFS – did the work on this.

The importance of multi-cellular animals living in the ultra-deep subsurface is twofold: The nematodes graze on the existing bacterial population and influence their turnover. Secondly, if more complex multi-cellular organisms can survive in the deep subsurface on earth, this may be good news when looking for life on other planets where the surface is considered too inhospitable (e.g. Mars). Complex life forms can be found in ecosystems previously thought to be uninhabitable. Nature says this expands the possibilities into new areas where new organisms may be discovered.

Future research will focus on selective boreholes to look for more metazoans, so that a better idea of the complexity of the ecosystems there can be obtained. It will also look for metazoans in the deep subsurface on other continents to determine similarities and differences.

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