23 Apr 2018 - 14:00

Open Call for Letter of Intent (LOI) on Drug Discovery

Release date: June 27 2018

Due date: 18th July 2018

1. Background

Drug discovery excellence is a critical prerequisite for success in drug development and remains a highly neglected area for the African continent. The lack of market incentives has biased drug discovery efforts globally away from diseases most prevalent in the developing world. Collaborative efforts of multidisciplinary teams – in drug discovery and other fields – shows that success and efficiency increases significantly when individual contributors combine their complementary capabilities. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. State-of-the-art approaches to implementing drug discovery projects, especially when the goal is to also build drug discovery capability on the African continent, need to be supported.

Available data show very little drug discovery activity in Africa compared to the rest of the world. This may be related to a lag in technological development; lower infrastructure and service support; sparsely distributed human resources exacerbated by the continued brain drain; and lower funding and support, coupled with depressed interest by the pharmaceutical industry in diseases of poverty. Furthermore, there is a general lack of training in drug discovery, which also holds back the overall development of drug discovery on the continent. Despite these challenges, there is some progress being made and reasons to be optimistic for the future of drug discovery in Africa.

2. Program Goal

We seek to support exciting new drug discovery projects in Africa. A secondary objective is to strengthen drug discovery capabilities in Africa and create a project-driven virtual African drug discovery network.

This call is a partnership between the African Academy of Sciences (AAS), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV) and the University of Cape Town (UCT) Drug Discovery and Development Centre (H3D).

Applications will be assessed and selected based on scientific merit and their potential to advance the drug discovery process. Selected applicants will also benefit from a network of drug discovery scientists in Africa and across the globe, linking them to peers, mentors and providing them with access to resources and technologies.

The disease focus of the call will be Malaria, Tuberculosis (TB) and Neglected Tropical Diseases.

3. Application Guidance 

What we are looking to accomplish: 

  • Identify new chemical entities (NCEs) with potential for drug development in diseases of local relevance for Africa, starting with hits for subsequent hit-to-lead and lead optimization campaigns. 
  • Expand research capacity for drug discovery within qualifying institutions.
  • Strengthen the drug discovery network by building intra-Africa and global links including those identified as having basic and translational science capacities.

To be eligible, applicants must:

  • Have a creative idea for a drug discovery project based on one or more of the following:
  1. biological targets
  2. biological screens or assays
  3. small molecule starting points (hits or leads including purified and characterized natural products)
  4. in-vitro and in vivo DMPK | ADME assays and related technologies
  • Work in drug discovery on the African continent
  • Be willing, interested, and able to collaborate with expertise across the continent to share and develop best practices and approaches for drug discovery

These drug discovery projects will be undertaken in the context of the current landscape of drug discovery in Africa. While funding will be allocated to specific research projects, the program also seeks to develop capacity for drug discovery excellence in new regions, either through collaborative work with existing centers of excellence, or by supporting efforts to enhance drug discovery research capacity in a new region. To support and enhance existing drug discovery excellence, long term partnerships will be encouraged and should be demonstrated. For new partnerships, plans to maintain a productive collaborative relationship should be outlined. Applicants will describe their creative idea, but also how their proposals add value to existing infrastructure and expertise, and particularly how any duplicated activities will lead to a sustained opportunity for drug discovery within the region. Drug discovery also demands accurate and detailed record keeping, so ability to develop robust data systems will be required.

What we are NOT looking for:

  • Characterization of natural product extracts, including semi-purified or otherwise
  • Bioprospecting studies for chemical entities, genes, micro-organisms and macro-organisms
  • Biomarkers and diagnostics
  • Projects solely focused on network building, capacity building and infrastructure projects for drug discovery without specific biological targets or screening assays or small molecule starting points
  • Total synthesis or developing synthetic methods

Duration of Award: The maximum duration of the award to grantees will be two years, subject to satisfactory attainment of agreed-upon milestones.

Size of Award:  Each project has a term of 24 months beginning from the project start date and the amount awarded is up to USD $100,000. We expect to fund ~8 projects.

Application Steps:

This RFP will make use of a three-step application process:

Step 1:  Submission of a Letter of Inquiry (LOI) to the African Academy of Sciences.  There is a two (2) page limit on the LOI.  Applicant organizations submitting the LOI MUST fully meet the eligibility criteria. LOIs must be submitted electronically here.  Please read the full guidelines to make certain that your LOI responds to the call.

The program partners will evaluate the LOIs. Eligible applicants with projects of interest will be informed no later than 14th September 2018.

Eligible candidates will be invited to participate in two meetings with connections to drug discovery hosted in Berlin, Germany. Although not mandatory, applicants are strongly encouraged to attend as this will provide an opportunity to network and to establish contacts that might strengthen the final proposal:

Grand Challenges Annual Meeting (15th -19th October 2018) 

  • There will be relevant scientific tracks on Optimizing Drug Discovery & Translation (organized by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) and Strengthening African Research & Development Ecosystem (organized by the African Academy of Sciences & Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation,)
  • Keystone Symposia on 21st Century Drug Discovery and Development for Global Health (17th – 20th October 2018) 

Step 2:  Eligible applicants will be required to submit a full, written proposal before 15th November 2018. Additional guidance to successful applicants will be provided after the LOI selection process.

Step 3: Applicants will present their final proposal at a meeting in Cape Town, South Africa on 5th and 6th December, 2018.

Applicants will be informed of the outcome not later than 7th January 2019.


Application Schedule

Key Dates and Deadlines Event
27 June 2018  LOI call open
18 July 2018

Application deadline for LOI at 5pm EAT | 6pm CAT | 8pm GMT | 9pm CVT

Mid-August 2018 Triage of received LOI
August 2018 LOI review completed 
Mid-September 2018

LOI Selections completed and notifications sent.

Invitees apply for Berlin meeting visas.  

15 - 20 October 2018

Selected shortlisted LOI applicants attend two Drug Discovery scientific meetings Grand Challenges & Keystone,  prior to submitting full proposal

Late October 2018 Invitation to present full proposal for selected candidates
Early November 2018 Visa applications Republic of South Africa 
November 2018 Application deadline for full proposal
5 - 6 December 2018 Candidates presenting proposals (South Africa)
December 2018 Decision committee – Proposal review completed, and notifications sent to awardees
January 2019 Due diligence
February 2019 Awarded projects start date 

4. Partner Information

The African Academy of Sciences, a pan-African academy of all sciences is home of Grand Challenges Africa (GC Africa). GC Africa seeks to support bold innovations that address Africa’s health and developmental challenges. As part of this program, the Academy is bringing together the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the University of Cape Town (UCT) Drug Discovery and Development Centre (H3D) and Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV) to organize a drug discovery “sentinel” to support exciting new drug discovery projects while helping to create and strengthen an African Drug Discovery network. Grantees will have access to a wide-range of resources from all four partners. 

Sponsoring organizations:

African Academy of Sciences (AAS)

The African Academy of Sciences will coordinate the triage of proposals, grant making, grant management and running of a cohesive cohort that work together to strengthen existing networks where each member plays a role in each other’s success. AAS will also spearhead industry and any external connections for the networks. Where possible AAS will assist with the formation of a new nexus for drug discovery on the continent. 

Drug Discovery and Development Centre (H3D)

The Drug Discovery and Development Centre (H3D) at the University of Cape Town will be a key partner in this collaboration. They will offer their experience in conducting drug discovery projects on the continent to make this program a success. H3D will be involved in the identification of innovative ideas and promote excellence in the program. They will also offer their experiences for local capacity building in this area. Where possible they will offer access to their facilities for collaborations depending on their capacity in order to address gaps identified at the African partner institution. H3D will specifically participate in this program by providing opportunities to African partners:

  1. to be immersed within H3D’s ongoing malaria and TB drug discovery projects as full project members working from their home institutions 
  2. to use H3D infrastructure, technology platforms and expertise to fill gaps in their own environment 
  3. to generate key data from existing screening assays to support the projects at the African partner institution as well as to provide project management support and guidance with data interpretation
  4. to tap into existing H3D/pharmaceutical industry scientist exchange programs for capacity building in order to gain additional skills 

Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV)

Medicines for Malaria Venture will provide expertise for the discovery, development, and delivery of effective new interventions targeted in this call. The team will ensure that the call focusses on innovative projects that have a potential to contribute to the global health drug discovery pipelines and advice on the risks and opportunities of each project.

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF)

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funds and supports drug discovery activities across multiple global health diseases with a strategic focus on TB and Malaria. This is accomplished through building networks of grantees and partners globally. BMGF will bring its resources and experience to support the drug researchers funded by this program and create opportunities to access deep expertise in drug discovery and the biology of the target diseases. BMGF seeks to expand the global drug discovery capability, including in disease endemic countries, which can contribute to its programs to control and eliminate diseases of poverty.

Each partner will leverage their networks in drug discovery and related programs to contribute positively to the challenges that will be offered from the program.

Awardee collaborators:

While these grants will be awarded to individual applicants and administered by their home institution, they are also designed to be collaborative as will be emphasized during the sentinel workshops. Funded projects will be required to demonstrate evidence of working in collaborations with other grantees, networks and institutions in Africa with drug discovery capacities, and to have mentors and/or collaborating institutions based in Africa or in the global South and North. Representatives from the funding and sponsoring organizations (AAS, BMGF, MMV, H3D) can also serve as mentors, collaborators, consultants (subject to conflict of interest issues), emphasising the importance of co-ownership in global collaborative efforts.

This opportunity should create a network of drug discovery (and development) scientists that will initiate, develop, share, evaluate and disseminate best approaches and practices within the research community in Africa. To prevent undue redundancies and to share learning and challenges and best practices, AAS and partners will organize regular gatherings/sentinel face-to-face meetings for grantees, or via teleconference calls to discuss developments, progress and insights gained throughout the project period, monitoring and evaluation framework and indicators to be developed jointly between funders/sponsors and grantees.