In the landlocked, sub-Saharan country of Malawi, oftentimes only land separates wells for drinking water from sewage in toilet pits.
Cholera, a highly contagious bacterial disease found in contaminated water, becomes a concern when that dividing line disappears during each year’s rainy season. A natural disaster like Cyclone Idai, which struck in March and devastated parts of three countries, makes identifying clean water even more urgent. When UNICEF and Brazilian cholera scientists arrived to test samples just days after the cyclone hit, they needed a local partner who was up to the task.
They found one in Gama Bandawe and his lab at the Malawi University of Science and Technology. Just four months earlier, Bandawe had unpacked a 20-foot container filled with the testing equipment he needed from Seeding Labs, a Boston-based nonprofit organization that collects lab equipment in high-income countries and redistributes it at a lower cost to labs in low- and middle-income countries.
“We were able to show them, here are our laboratories, and here’s the equipment that we have. The next day, samples started arriving,” said Bandawe, the head of biological sciences at the university. He believes it was the equipment his lab had — other labs lacked — that made his lab suitable for the project.
“It was magical,” Bandawe recalled when he and his students unloaded the shipment from Seeding Labs and outfitted the lab.
The idea for Seeding Labs began when Nina Dudnik, the founder and former CEO, returned to the U.S. after conducting research as a Fulbright scholar in a sparsely equipped lab in Côte d’Ivoire. After starting graduate school in 2001, Dudnik and her friends formed a student group to raise awareness of research being conducted abroad. They thought about how they could help scientists in emerging economies conduct their research more effectively.
U.S. scientists starting their own labs usually receive startup packages to buy lab equipment and pay students and postdocs for the first couple years. “For a lot of researchers going to places where research isn’t as well-funded, you don’t have any of that. It’s like, here’s some space; go get some grants. Figure out how you’re going to get the grant with no equipment, no students, no postdocs,” said Melissa Wu, the CEO of Seeding Labs who met Dudnik in graduate school and was part of the student group.
Starting in 2003, when the group officially became Seeding Labs, it began collecting used lab equipment from universities and biotechs around Boston. It partnered with the Sustainable Sciences Institute, a San Francisco nonprofit whose mission is to improve public health in developing countries, to ship functional lab equipment for postdocs returning to their home countries to set up their labs. From 2003 to 2008, shipments were made to labs in Central America, Argentina, Chile, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Seeding Labs became a nonprofit organization in 2008 and today, researchers from around the world apply for equipment through its Instrumental Access program.
Recipients pay for procurement, storage, shipping, and administrative costs. The fee ranges from $27,000 to $35,000, depending on the country, and researchers in return receive equipment worth roughly $100,000 to $150,000 on the secondhand market. Though economical, the researchers still need to raise funds and garner institutional support.
“What we’re really trying to do is create opportunities and help scientists get the resources that they need to use science to solve the problems that they see in the communities around them and that they see globally,” said Wu.
Cultivating the ‘miracle berry’
Enoch Achigan-Dako was just the type of scientists Seeding Labs had in mind.
In the tiny West African country of Benin, Achigan-Dako and his research team are investigating orphan crops, indigenous fruits and vegetables consumed as food or used as medicines for local communities but underutilized and neglected internationally. They hope their work can improve the hunger and malnutrition that afflict the country.
Now an associate professor of genetics, horticulture, and seed science at the University of Abomey-Calavi, Achigan-Dako learned to conduct research during his Ph.D. studies in Germany. Back in Benin, he found little infrastructure available to pursue his research.
“Either I travel back [to Europe] to continue having the working space available,” he said, “or I stay home and forget about what I have learned, and I continue my life like anyone else. Those were the two options.”
He made another choice. With the help of funds from small grants, he and his students built a laboratory from scratch, but there was no money to equip the lab. One of Achigan-Dako’s students told him about Seeding Labs, leading them to apply for the Instrumental Access program for the lab. The equipment arrived last October.
Suddenly, Achigan-Dako’s lab became a place for scientists to conduct research.
Today, the lab studies a variety of indigenous vegetables, legumes, and fruits, among them the African spider plant, Cleome gynandra, and the “miracle berry,” Synsepalum dulcificum.
The spider plant, found across Africa, is a leafy vegetable high in several nutrients, including calcium, magnesium, folic acid, iron, and vitamins A and C. Locals traditionally used the plant medicinally, leveraging the anti-inflammatory properties of the plant to relieve local pain by rubbing the leaves on affected areas. Achigan-Dako and collaborators in Benin and the Netherlands hope to cultivate different breeds tailored to the needs of farmers and general consumers.
They also hope an indigenous fruit, the miracle berry, can help prevent the increasing rates of diabetes in his country and in the rest of the world. Though the small red berry gives off an unremarkable, mildly sweet taste on its own, it contains miraculin, a protein that binds sweet taste receptors on the tongue and transforms sour, acidic foods such as lemons or pineapples into delectable sweets. The berries are difficult to grow, and Achigan-Dako is testing methods to ease the cultivation of the berries and ultimately reduce processed sugar intake and lower the incidence of diabetes along the way.
A well-equipped lab might help make both possible.
‘We were dumping our equipment’
Today, Seeding Labs partners with over 150 pharmaceutical and biotech companies and research institutions worldwide to take advantage of their excess equipment and resources. Its biggest sponsors include MilliporeSigma (MKKGY), Takeda (TAK), Merck (MRK), GE Healthcare (GE), and Cell Signaling Technology.
“We were dumping our equipment” before the partnership with Seeding Labs, said Sonia Glace, the global marketing leader at GE Healthcare Life Sciences. Now the equipment is “refurbished” and given new life.
In addition to donating equipment, a few companies have also partnered with Seeding Labs to provide training and additional scientific support to the awardees. At MilliporeSigma, employees create videos demonstrating equipment usage through the TeleScience platform. “Our employees love it because it gives them an ability to share knowledge,” said Renee Connolly, the head of global communications at MilliporeSigma, a division of Merck KGaA.
“With Takeda, we’re piloting a virtual mentorship program,” said Leah Lindsay, vice president of external relations at Seeding Labs, “where their employees provide input on equipment, questions, and concerns that people have.”
Along with receiving equipment donations, Seeding Labs also receives financial support from several of the companies for its operations. According to Lindsay, sponsorships range in size from one-time awards in the thousands to multiyear six-figure partnerships.
Revenue consists of 55% corporate partnerships, 35% Instrumental Access program fees, and 10% government grants and philanthropic donations.
Together with its partners, Seeding Labs has supported 74 institutions in 35 countries with an estimated $33 million worth of equipment. Around 24,000 students are trained on equipment provided by Seeding Labs each year, the group said, and 1,700 master’s and Ph.D. students have used the equipment to conduct research.
Studying growing threats
Among the recipients is an Indian immunologist tackling two diseases afflicting her country.
In Gujarat state, India, the incidence of oral cancers is growing due to heavy tobacco usage. Ratika Srivastava, an assistant professor at Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, and her research team are trying to develop affordable therapies for people in the state. Her lab is also conducting research on lupus, a poorly understood autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues and organs. The rate in India is climbing, though, and Srivastava’s lab is characterizing blood cells of Gujarati people with the disease, in hopes of better understanding the disease and ultimately developing a treatment.
According to Srivastava, the two diseases her lab focuses on stem from her postdoc work as a cancer biologist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and as a lupus researcher at Bristol-Myers Squibb in Bangalore, India. After four years at BMS, she started her own lab.
Srivastava received equipment from Seeding Labs in 2018, two years after establishing her lab. The lab was empty when she arrived, and the instruments she received have helped her build up the lab.
“It was really, really helpful,” said Srivastava. “We could customize what we need based on our research interests.”
Next, collaborations. Then, the next generation
A glimpse into a 20-foot Seeding Labs shipping container could reveal small items like pipettes and larger ones like chemical fume hoods that protect researchers from toxic substances they are working on. There could be instruments that help regulate reaction temperatures or fixtures that provide uncontaminated space for cells to grow, mix samples, separate samples by density, and magnify tiny objects.
Achigan-Dako, the scientist in Benin studying orphan crops, said he received equipment to establish a microscopy unit, a “gene bank” to store seeds of a variety of crops, tissue culture space, a molecular lab, and a biochemistry unit.
Although each lab receives anywhere from 100 to 200 pieces of equipment, Seeding Labs is not able to award all equipment on a wish list. Achigan-Dako is still hoping for an analytical chemistry instrument to detect nutrients from crops.
Still, Srivastava, the Indian scientist, noted that even if a researcher receives just 60% of the equipment they request, they can “save many years of [their] life.”
“One of our researchers said it was like 10 years of equipment coming all at once,” said Lindsay of Seeding Labs.
Having the right equipment is essential to a research lab; it also fosters partnerships.
For Dr. Robert Paulino-Ramirez, the director of the Institute for Tropical Medicine and Global Health at Universidad Iberoamericana in the Dominican Republic, the equipment he received from Seeding Labs in June 2016 was a game-changer.
The equipment enabled him to create the Institute of Tropical Medicine and Global Health, a center dedicated to health sciences research at the university.
“For the first time, we can collaborate with friends” in high-income countries “at the same level,” he noted.
The institute worked with the government to lead the implementation of pre-exposure prophylaxis, known as PrEP, against HIV in the Dominican Republic in 2018. PrEP is a daily pill that substantially lowers the risk of HIV infection among those uninfected but vulnerable.
Another study at Paulino-Ramirez’s institute is characterizing the prevalence of mosquito-borne diseases, such as those caused by Zika, dengue, and chikungunya viruses across the country.
“The infrastructure is beautiful,” Paulino-Ramirez said. “We don’t have any others like this in the region.”
According to the four scientists, better-equipped labs also present the opportunity to share technical skills with other scientists and pass on the knowledge to students.
“All the research we do is fantastic,” said Bandawe, the Malawian scientist, “but I think the biggest contribution that we are making to the country is that we’re training this next generation, this next group of scientists.”