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Naledi Pandor, Minister of Science and Technology, has launched a new Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) Facility in Gauteng at the iThemba Laboratory for Accelerator-Based Sciences (iThemba LABS). This is the only AMS facility of its kind in Africa.

AMS is used mainly for radiocarbon dating, or determining the chronological age of historical artefacts, geological and hydrological samples (e.g. of rocks and rainwater), or biological material such as bone or tissue. This makes it particularly useful in the fields of archaeology and the palaeosciences. However, it also has a number of other important applications in biomedicine (Alzheimer’s and cancer research, as well as drug discovery), Earth sciences, and climate and environmental research.

In the biomedical field, AMS can be employed in a variety of applications, including the measurement of the effects and dosages of pharmaceuticals on specific organs of body such as the brain; the absorption of aluminium-26 in patients affected by Alzheimer’s disease; and, through the use of 41Ca (calcium) isotopes, in studying bone changes in patients suffering from skeletal diseases such as osteoporosis. It has also been used in drug discovery and development as it allows for the analysis of metabolic drug distribution in a living organism, with few or no side-effects on the subject being studied.

Speaking at the event, Minister Pandor welcomed the launch of the facility, stating that it put South Africa “in a position to produce more and more cutting-edge research in critical areas” and was “a valuable research and knowledge-producing facility for domestic and international users.”

The Chief Executive Officer of the National Research Foundation (NRF), Dr Albert van Jaarsveld, said: “The launch of this facility provides another stepping stone towards building a South Africa that derives sustainable benefits from science, technology and innovation. In keeping with the NRF’s mandate to support knowledge creation and human capital development, this new AMS lab will be a valuable resource for the research community as well as for training purposes. The facility will not only benefit local researchers and students, but also the continent’s research community, which will also have access to a faster and more efficient method of sample analysis.”

Dr Simon Mullins, who heads iThemba LABS’s Gauteng facility, explained: “While Africa does host a number of accelerator facilities outside of South Africa, namely in Nigeria, Egypt and Algeria, iThemba LABS is the only facility on the continent currently hosting its own AMS lab. Previously, any research requiring the use of AMS warranted shipping the samples to an overseas facility. By hosting a lab locally, iThemba LABS now enables the continent’s research community with a faster and more efficient method of sample analysis.

“With the launch of the new AMS lab, South Africa again places itself among the world leaders in accelerator-based research. It addresses the need for both the continued development of a dynamic research environment as well as a rich training ground for technicians and next generation researchers. Many of the 100 or so AMS facilities worldwide cater mainly to radiocarbon dating on a commercial basis. We have chosen to focus on a research-oriented approach to the operation of our AMS lab, offering a wider range of isotope analysis, which will go hand-in-hand with postgraduate training for master’s and doctoral degrees. For example, we will be able to accommodate 10Be radioisotopes which are commonly used in the analysis of ice cores. This is of particular importance to South Africa’s Antarctic research programme for studies into areas such as climate change. The lab will also be used for biomedical research applications as well as for archaeology and palaeosciences in which Wits University is a leading research institute that hosts the Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences, the Evolutionary Studies Institute and the Rock Art Research Institute,” added Dr Mullins.

The new facility is funded by the Department of Science and Technology, the NRF and the International Atomic Energy Agency

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