Former Coca-Cola CEO gives $1m for UCT medicines research

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Neville Isdell and Professor Kelly Chibale, University of Cape Town

It’s more than 50 years since Neville Isdell graduated from the University of Cape Town (UCT), but he’s remained forever grateful. And now, reports The Times, UCT has announced that the 76-year-old former chair and CEO of Coca-Cola had made his second $1m-plus donation to the university.

Last time the money went to the UCT Rugby Football Club, where Isdell took over as president this year. But, the report says, the latest donation of $1.24m (about R18m) will be spent on researching new medicines for infectious diseases at the UCT Drug Discovery and Development Centre (H3D). “I am excited about playing a part in helping to achieve African solutions to public health challenges on the continent and across the world,” Isdell said.

The donation will establish a five-year Neville Isdell chair in African-centric Drug Discovery and Development at H3D. The centre’s director and founder, Kelly Chibale, will hold the chair.

Isdell said: “I hope this support will help Professor Chibale to drive and lead innovative research and development of new malaria medicines, as well as new tuberculosis and antimicrobial resistance treatments, and train a new generation of African scientists with key modern pharmaceutical skills required to discover modern medicines.”

Chibale said part of the money would be used to lead efforts in establishing the H3D African Drug Metabolism and Disposition Project, also known as the H3D African Liver Project. It will focus on variable drug response across African populations, which is mostly driven by genetic differences in the expression and activity of drug-metabolising enzymes.

“In addition to providing useful data for targeted clinical trial design, and eventually for the establishment of better directed drug dosage and dosage intervals, the African Liver Project will also make H3D a unique centre of excellence where scientists from the global north and Africa will work hand in hand to better understand genetic variability in diverse African populations,” said Chibale.

UCT vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng, said in the report that the establishment of the chair was an endorsement of H3D’s pioneering research and work. “Because of H3D’s initial achievements, the chair will be extremely well placed to assume a leadership role in finding effective solutions to the discovery of life-saving innovative new medicines,” she said. “The post will be powerfully placed for guiding thinking, discussion and decision-making on the African continent.”

The report says H3D already has a potential drug for malaria in human trials. It has the potential to cure, block transmission and protect in a single dose. The centre’s work also includes projects targeting tuberculosis drugs and the threat of antimicrobial resistance, in part driven by hospital infections resistant to conventional antibiotics.

Chibale said the funding would be put to good use at H3D, which was launched eight years ago, and has grown from a staff of four scientists to 60. “H3D will need sustainable funding at critical mass if it is to succeed. Should H3D continue to be successful, it could result in the beginning of a home-grown pharmaceutical R&D industry that would focus on the unmet medical needs of African populations and create high-skilled jobs for African scientists.”

The report says Isdell was born in Ireland and raised in Zambia, Chibale’s home country. He obtained a bachelor of social science degree at UCT before joining Coca-Cola in Zambia in 1966. He worked for the company in 11 countries across the globe before becoming chair and CEO.

His first $1m donation to UCT was used to build the Neville Isdell Rugby Centre. He has also funded of the Smuts Hall Neville Isdell Leadership Camp over the past few years, and will do so for a further five years.

The Times report

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