Engineer, biotech innovator and businessperson Dineo Lioma plans to use artificial intelligence in the world of medicine, which might help to prevent the spread of tuberculosis and even viruses such as Covid-19 in the future, writes Sue Grant-Marshall
Dineo Lioma’s energy and enthusiasm are infectious, and the way she speaks about things such as artificial intelligence (AI), DNA, enzymes and gene sequencing to aid those in the field of healthcare makes one believe there is hope for our virus-stricken world. Lioma has co-founded two medical technology companies, founded a third and currently runs two of them – and she is not yet 30 years old. She has a master’s degree in micro and nanotechnology enterprise with distinction from Cambridge University in the UK.
“I knew I wanted to work in the field of health and to help South Africa progress. There was not a lot going on in micro and nanotechnology here, so I came home. I wanted to give back,” she says.
For a while, she felt like a square peg in a round hole because she couldn’t find the right slot for her health-oriented goals. Sensibly, she took time out to work out her next step, “although it felt weird to have all my qualifications and be sitting there, just thinking”. In 2014, she co-founded and was the chief operating officer of Incitech, a medical diagnostics company that has developed a rapid HIV diagnostic device, which will make testing for the virus faster and more convenient.
One of the companies that Lioma operates with her business partner, Daniel Ndima, and of which she is the chief operating officer, is CapeBio Technologies, which is based at The Innovation Hub in Pretoria. She and Ndima have a laboratory within the Biopark@Gauteng campus. CapeBio, a Council for Scientific and Industrial Research spin-off, develops and manufactures molecular biology reagents, enzymes and kits for research purposes. An enzyme is a substance that acts as a catalyst in living organisms. It regulates the rate at which chemical reactions take place, but is not itself altered in the process.
Its stable qualities make it a valuable tool in a research laboratory and they are used to analyse DNA – the molecule that contains the genetic code of all living organisms, and thus holds the key to life and health. Their enzymes are used for DNA amplification, testing, sequencing and cloning.
“South African research, pathology and DNA forensic labs do thousands of tests daily and spend millions on importing enzymes. So far, we’re the only local company to develop and manufacture these enzymes,” says Lioma. CapeBio, so called because its products come from the internationally recognised unique biosphere of the Western Cape, plans to expand “into Europe and the US. We are the first to introduce enzymes from African soil to the global market.”
In 2018, she founded Deep Medical Therapeutics (DMT) in partnership with IBM and a human genomic sequencing organisation. The medical technology start-up is building AI-based solutions for medical doctors. Deep tech is a term used to describe a set of cutting-edge and disruptive technologies based on scientific discoveries in engineering, medicine and other sectors.
DMT will use AI to help doctors make decisions about how to treat drug-resistant diseases like TB based on a patient’s genetic profile. Lioma details how TB mutates and becomes resistant to antibiotics, which makes the disease extremely difficult to treat. “It’s a clever bug. At present, when a patient presents with TB symptoms, a sputum sample is taken and sent to a lab. It can take up to a fortnight for a diagnosis to be sent to your clinic. During this time, this highly infectious disease can spread.”
IBM helped Lioma build the prototype for an app that can deliver a diagnosis on a smartphone or tablet and recommend the correct treatment on the spot. Her vision is that her DMT app could even be used to identify drug-resistance patterns for various infections “and the correct drug could be prescribed for it”. Lioma loved science and maths at Bloemfontein’s Eunice High School.
It was this, plus her passion for entrepreneurship, that resulted in a teacher putting her name forward for an Allan Gray Orbis Foundation scholarship, which took Lioma to Wits University, where she chose to become an engineer. “If it wasn’t for Allan Gray, I’d not have followed my entrepreneurial route. I have so much to thank him for,” she says. She was doing her master’s in materials engineering research at Wits when she was offered the Cambridge master’s scholarship. “My mother’s maxim was: ‘Always finish what you start.’ But I couldn’t pass up an opportunity like that, so I ended up doing two master’s degrees.”