Londiwe Buthelezi Boston
The continent’s first clinical study site that will enable the country to deliver drugs that are ready to test on human patients will open in Cape Town this year.
This announcement was made in the US city of Boston last week.
Novartis and UCT’s H3-D drug discovery and development centre announced the collaboration to develop the site during the Health Equity Symposium, which focused on medicine and science in Africa.
The gathering, attended by global scientists, university professors and the leaders of health programmes, was held for the second year. It sought ways to make African researchers more active in integrated drug discovery for the African population.
H3-D, the first drug discovery centre in Africa, developed the first compound approved by the Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV) as a pre-clinical anti-malaria candidate drug in July last year. The compound could become part of a single-dose cure and thus H3-D is preparing to conduct clinical trials.
The director of H3-D, Kelly Chibale, said the MMV’s team of scientists had expanded from four to 22 people. And in the project’s later stages, it would partner with local drug companies.
“Investing in research and development is not a luxury, it’s essential for the government to do. Research and development is creating jobs,” he said.
In this project, there was not one molecule on the ground yet, he said. However, it had created jobs and would help to retain scarce skills in the country as more opportunities were created for young local scientists. This would happen when clinical trials for the candidate drug for malaria commenced next year.
Chibale added: “Here’s a product that hasn’t even made it to the market, yet it’s already yielding economic benefits.”
Lord Nigel Crisp, a member of the UK House of Lords and a board member of the South African Department of Health’s Academy for Leadership and Management in Health Care, said that on top of the advantage of avoiding the costs of importing research, if a drug was developed locally, it would be more tailored for local health problems.
Chibale said South Africa had good institutions conducting ground-breaking basic research and infrastructure that provided a platform for clinical trials. But bringing these two elements together had remained a problem.
The Novartis Institute for BioMedical research, which will fund training programmes for scientists and laboratory upgrades as well as offer fellowship grants, wanted to keep the project central to the company.
It would send its scientists to Cape Town and take locals to its Boston headquarters.
This would facilitate shared experience and the transfer of knowledge.
The Department of Science and Technology and the Technology Innovation Agency funded the MMV project as well as the building of the discovery centre. But Chibale said it was still difficult to convince people to put money into research.
This was particularly bad in poverty stricken countries where there were competing priorities for funding.
But Chibale said that governments needed to realise that investing in research was for the good of their countries. Certain types of research were critical in influencing the government’s policies and direction.
Last year, the Department of Health recommitted to spend 2 percent of its annual budget on research and development in the next three financial years.
The current spend on health research is only 0.38 percent, even though South Africa committed to invest 2 percent of its health budget on research in 2001.
John Gyapong, the pro-vice chancellor of the University of Ghana, who spoke at the symposium, said getting African health ministers to commit to funding research remained a big challenge and even when commitments were made publicly, they were often not honoured.
“The bottom line is systems are too overstretched to make an impact. Ageing scientists are not replaced and even when resources are allocated, they end up in different places,” he said.
Even funding for science studies at university level was limited as institutions avoided the offering of scientific disciplines.
Benhards Ogutu, the chief research officer at Kenya Medical Research Institute, said until governments paid for research, they would not value it.
“Governments [in] most African countries don’t take results of research seriously because they are not paying for it… If an American company funds research and development in Africa, it will fund what answers American questions,” he said.
He said that support from other countries could be added, but governments, primarily, should fund their own research.
Novartis sponsored Londiwe Buthelezi’s trip to Boston.