South African drug and vaccine researchers and health innovators are smiling.
UCT and the South African Medical Research Council (MRC) recently announced a R370 million biotechnology partnership to develop new medicines, vaccines and other biotechnologies to combat HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria, Africa's big killers.
The funding and support partners are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Departments of Science and Technology (DST) and Health.
The announcement was made at the MRC's Tygerberg offices, and the development will provide a significant fillip to local health innovation and the bio-economy.
The partnership integrates existing role players - government, academia, industry - into a co-ordinated system, each with specific roles in drug and vaccine discovery.
It will support two distinct programmes, one involving UCT directly.
In the first programme, researchers from across South Africa will compete for funding from the MRC's Strategic Health Innovation Partnerships (SHIP) earmarked for AIDS and TB vaccine development. This initiative has received R125 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, R130 million from the DST, and R60 million from the Department of Health.
The second programme is a partnership between the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, SHIP and UCT, through the Drug Discovery & Development Centre (H3-D), with its Director, Professor Kelly Chibale, as Principal Investigator and Project Director.
H3-D is Africa's first integrated modern drug discovery and development centre, the objective of which is to deliver drug candidates for clinical development. In addition to R50 million in funding from SHIP and the Technology Innovation Agency for this work, H3-D will receive R55 million over five years from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
H3-D has already delivered promising results in its short history. In 2012 H3-D and the Medicines for Malaria Venture discovered a novel chemical compound with the potential to impact both malaria control and eradication. The clinical candidate, MMV390048, will enter Phase 1 human clinical trials at Groote Schuur Hospital this year.
While life-saving drug, vaccine and technology discovery is at the heart of the news, the partnerships will fulfil a longer-term goal: to develop a critical mass of top-flight South African scientists in the field, able to compete at high international levels.
The partnership also harnesses skills and research networks in and outside South Africa and will be led by local scientists, backed by the DST and the Department of Health.
Funding from government and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been the partnership's lifeblood. As the MRC noted, the South Africa medical research sector is "severely under-funded".
African science solutions
Speaking at the launch, Acting Vice-Chancellor Professor Thandabantu Nhlapo said the new partnerships reflected UCT's own vision of internationalisation through an Afropolitan niche.
"We believe our partnering with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the MRC and government helps us develop Africa-generated solutions to African problems. At the southern tip of Africa, UCT could be the gateway to this, a link between the global North and South."
He said that UCT's Drug Discovery Centre (H3-D) showed that research not only created new knowledge but new jobs, career opportunities, and infrastructure - and reversed the brain drain.
He added: "It's exciting to come and work in Africa."
Story by Helen Swingler.
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