Awards to boost drug discovery for Africa-endemic diseases

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Eight innovators from seven African countries have been announced as the inaugural awardees of the Grand Challenges (GC) Africa drug discovery scheme, each receiving up to $100,000 for a period of two years to expand their institutions’ drug discovery research capacity.

. They will be involved in research that will advance the discovery of new drugs to prevent, treat and cure diseases endemic to Africa. As a key partner, the University of Cape Town’s Drug Discovery and Development Centre (H3D), is to share its expertise and experience with the awardees.

GC Africa, through its partnership with H3D, Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has awarded grants to innovative research projects in fields ranging from malaria and tuberculosis (TB) to Human African trypanosomiasis (HAT), also known as sleeping sickness. GC Africa is an innovation and entrepreneurial programme of the African Academy of Sciences (The AAS).

The eight innovators are from South Africa, Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria and Zimbabwe. They were selected from 53 applicants from 13 African countries. “Diseases considered to be of the poor face a market bias that has hampered the discovery of drugs to treat them. The AAS and its partners; UCT’s H3D; Medicines for Malaria Venture 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,” said GC Africa programme manager, Dr Moses Alobo.

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, tuberculosis, 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 H3D’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.

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 Organisation (WHO) data revealed that the 2.5m people who fell ill with TB in Africa, represented a quarter of new TB cases in the world. WHO also reports 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 – occurred in seven countries, five of which were 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.”

GC Africa is implemented through The AAS and the AU Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD) funding, agenda-setting and programme management platform, and the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa.

The Grand Challenges Africa drug discovery innovators are:
Adrienne Lesley Elkins, Zimbabwe, associate professor of biochemistry and DST/NRF South African Research Chair (SARChI), Rhodes University.
Dinkorma Ouologuem, Mali, associate professor at the faculty of pharmacy, University of Sciences Techniques and Technologies of Bamako, Mali.
Fabrice Fekam Boyom, Cameroon, professor of biochemistry, faculty of science, University of Yaoundé 1, Cameroon.
Iruka N Okeke, Nigeria, professor in the department of pharmaceutical microbiology, faculty of pharmacy, University of Ibadan, Nigeria.
Özlem Tastan Bishop, South Africa, director of research unit in bioinformatics (RUBi) and associate professor in the department of biochemistry and microbiology, Rhodes University.
Richard Amewu, Ghana, senior lecturer, chemistry department, University of Ghana.
Edwin Murungi, Kenya, senior lecturer, medical biochemistry department, Kisii University.
Heinrich Hoppe, South Africa, associate professor, biochemistry and microbiology department Rhodes University.

“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,” said Fekam Boyom.

“Thanks to The AAS funding through the Grand Challenges Africa programme, we will work to contribute to developing shorter treatment regimens for tuberculosis to combat the problem of patients not adhering to treatment leading to a relapse, which has been the cause of multidrug-resistant TB,” said Edkins.


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