UCT Shares Expertise to Boost Search for New Drugs

27 Sep 2019 - 14:00
Eight innovators from seven African countries were selected as the inaugural grantees of the Grand Challenges Africa drug discovery scheme.


Eight innovators from seven African countries have been announced as the inaugural awardees of the Grand Challenges (GC) Africa drug discovery programme. They will be involved in research that will advance the discovery of new drugs to prevent, treat and cure diseases endemic to Africa.

The grants have been awarded to innovative research projects in fields ranging from malaria and tuberculosis (TB) to human African trypanosomiasis (HAT), also known as sleeping sickness.

As a key partner, the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Drug Discovery and Development Centre, H3D, is to share its expertise and experience with the awardees.

The eight researchers are from South Africa, Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria and Zimbabwe. They were selected from 53 applicants from 13 African countries.

GC Africa is an innovation and entrepreneurial programme of the African Academy of Sciences (The AAS). It is implemented through The AAS and the African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD) funding, agenda-setting and programme management platform, and the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa.

“Diseases considered to be of the poor face a market bias that has hampered the discovery of drugs to treat them,” said GC Africa programme manager Dr Moses Alobo.

“The AAS and its partners, UCT’s H3D, Medicines for Malaria Venture [MMV] and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are transforming the treatment landscape on the continent to ensure more Africans have improved access to effective and cheaper drugs and can lead healthier and happier lives.”

Expanding research capacity

The innovators, half of whom are women, will each receive up to $100 000 for a period of two years to expand their institutions’ drug discovery research capacity.

The funding will also enable the researchers to identify new chemical entities with potential for drug development in malaria, TB, leishmaniasis, HAT and enteroaggregative Escherichia coli, a bacteria associated with chronic and acute diarrhoea and childhood stunting.

H3D will provide opportunities for the awardees to be immersed within the centre’s ongoing drug discovery projects as full members while working from their home institutions. They will also have the opportunity to use the H3D infrastructure, technology platforms and expertise, including project management, to fill gaps in their own environment.

H3D is recognised globally for its pivotal research in the fields of malaria and TB, and has recently launched the African Drug Metabolism and Disposition project to address the issue of variability in drug response across African populations.

“We look forward to promoting excellence in the programme and offering our experience in conducting drug discovery projects on the African continent,” said Professor Kelly Chibale, founder and head of H3D.

This week Chibale was featured in the London Financial Times where he was quoted on the vital need to develop an African drug discovery and development industry to contribute towards the global fight against disease, develop a critical mass of talent, and create jobs. Through the GC Africa programme, H3D is helping to seed a research and development industry across the continent.

Disproportionate burden of disease

Africa represents 17% of the world’s population, but bears a disproportionate 25% of the global disease burden. Sub-Saharan Africa carries 90% of the global cases of malaria. In 2016, World Health Organization (WHO) data revealed that the 2.5 million people who fell ill with TB in Africa represented a quarter of new TB cases in the world.

The WHO also reports that more than 90% of new cases of leishmaniasis – a devastating parasitic disease which can lead to disfiguration of the spleen and liver, or death in its most severe forms – occur in seven countries, five of which are in Africa: Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan.

“Africa bears the overwhelming burden of disease from malaria as well as many other tropical diseases,” said Dr Tim Wells, MMV’s chief scientific officer.

“It’s critical then that African research talent be part of the solution. MMV is proud to be in a position to help nurture some of that talent through our partnerships, for example with H3D, and now to support these eight innovators through Grand Challenges Africa. We look forward to following their progress.”

Finding better treatments

Fabrice Fekam Boyom, professor of Biochemistry in the Faculty of Science, University of Yaoundé 1 in Cameroon, said people continue to die from neglected tropical diseases, such as malaria, leishmaniasis and sleeping sickness.

“The current drugs do not effectively cure the parasites responsible for these diseases, while the disease burden is increasing due to drug resistance. We urgently need new drugs that are safe, effective and cost-effective, which is why I am pleased to receive this Grand Challenges Africa funding.

“It will allow me to contribute to continental efforts to find better treatments.”

Adrienne Lesley Edkins, Zimbabwe-born associate professor of Biochemistry and Department of Science and Technology/National Research Foundation South African Research Chairs Initiative Chair holder at Rhodes University, is also a recipient of the grant funding.

She said they will work to contribute towards developing shorter treatment regimens for TB to combat the problem of patients not adhering to treatment, leading to a relapse, “which has been the cause of multidrug-resistant TB”.

Story Kim Cloete