Kelly Chibale: Leading the way in African drug discovery

19 March 2019 | Story David Pilling for Photo Supplied. Read time 10 min.
Prof Kelly Chibale, head of UCT’s Drug Discovery and Development Centre (H3D), says it’s critical to create jobs in order to arrest the brain drain from South Africa and the rest of the continent.
Prof Kelly Chibale, head of UCT’s Drug Discovery and Development Centre (H3D), says it’s critical to create jobs in order to arrest the brain drain from South Africa and the rest of the continent.

The rag in Kelly Chibale’s rags-to-riches story is the lit one he used to put into a paraffin-filled tub so that he could study at night. Brought up amid violence and squalor in the Zambian copper belt settlement of Kabulanda — whose name, he says, literally denotes “sadness” — Mr Chibale has fashioned a successful career from a tough start.

The 54-year-old is the founder and director of H3D, Africa’s only fully integrated drug discovery centre, which in 2017 became the first to put an “African drug” — an anti-malarial — into Phase II clinical trials. A member of the Royal Society of Chemistry, in 2018 he was named by Fortune as one of the world’s top 50 leaders.

At Cape Town university, Mr Chibale is in charge of more than 60 post-doctoral scientists working full and part-time for H3D, which he established in 2010. It has grown from a team of five, with a $1m annual budget, to a unit doing what Mr Chibale says is work on a par with global pharmaceutical companies.

 H3D receives funding from the likes of Novartis and Johnson & Johnson, as well as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the South African government.

 “I want to debunk this myth that Africa cannot lead international efforts to innovate in the pharmaceutical space and actually discover drugs,” says Mr Chibale. “It’s what I call confronting Afro-pessimism,” he says, talking in his Cape Town laboratory. “As an African I cannot demand respect, I have to earn it. Not just by what I say, but also by my actions.”

It is not just about persuading outsiders that African innovation is worth taking seriously, he says. The biggest sceptics are Africans. “They can’t think that a guy like me from the townships and the villages of Zambia can lead international efforts and do something that is world class and innovative.”

 Mr Chibale was born in 1964; his father died two months later. Urged on by his mother, a market trader, he understood that education was the road out of poverty. “Our role models were people who went very far in education,” he says. After attending the University of Zambia, he applied for scholarships to study abroad, but got only rejections. He was working for an explosives subsidiary of ICI when, in 1989, he heard he had been shortlisted for a Cambridge Livingston Trust Scholarship.

 Mr Chibale’s first lesson in leadership is to recognise your limitations — and then do something about them. When he arrived in Cambridge “where the weather was strange, the people were strange, the food was strange”, he discovered that his education, however hard won, had not prepared him for the rigours of a world-class university.

“I realised I was down here,” he says, pointing close to the floor. “And my friends were up there. And guess what? I had two options. I could give up or say: ‘How do I try to climb?’ I ended up benefiting because I realised these were the standards I should be aspiring to.”

While friends socialised, Mr Chibale doubled down on his studies and sought the help of mentors. He earned a PhD in synthetic organic chemistry in three years. From there, he joined Liverpool university as a research fellow, moving on to the Scripps Research Institute in San.

Diego where he studied angiogenesis inhibitors, which can halt the spread of cancer.

In 1996, he took up a one-year teaching contract at the University of Cape Town, subsequently becoming a tenured professor. “I realised, in America or the UK or Canada, I’ll be a small fish in a very big pond. If I came to Africa, it’s an opportunity to make an impact and inspire people.”

Perhaps the biggest break came in 2010, when he set up H3D. “When we started H3D, there was nothing. What you see here had to be built from scratch,” he says, motioning to the white-coated lab technicians behind him. Attracting top scientists to an African drug discovery unit seemed like an impossible task. He decided that the only way was to form a credible organisation that could perform science to international standards.

Again, Mr Chibale started with his own deficiencies. He knew little about the practicalities of drug discovery so he went to a Pfizer research and development facility in south-east England, now shut, to learn how it was done: “I didn’t want to be a typical academic fooling around and saying ‘I’m doing drug discovery’ when I’m not.”

Still, how was he going to get a new enterprise off the ground with limited funding and no record? “We needed to develop the infrastructure, we needed to develop the expertise and the critical mass of scientists and technologists. These never existed before.”

His three-step approach involved building the labs with funding from the government, setting goals that could appeal to foreign investors and establishing networks. As well as working on malaria, for which funding was available, he began a drug metabolism programme — the “African Liver Project” — to help pharmaceutical companies adjust the drug dose for different patient groups, an example of a local project with wider applications.

Functions such as toxicology and high-throughput screening — testing vast numbers of molecules against a drug target — were outsourced to partners. Only once all that was established, he says, could he persuade scientists from the likes of Merck AG and AstraZeneca to move to his labs.

Only with the various elements in place could he persuade scientists that H3D was an environment where they could build a career and do important science. Slowly, H3D gained a reputation as a reliable employer with steady funding. Even now, though, he says, it can be hard to recruit qualified staff. He will place an ad locally and fail to get suitable applicants because many homegrown scientists have moved abroad or changed to more lucrative careers.

“The last thing I’m going to mention here is money,” he says. “Why is money last? Because money will follow good infrastructure, money will follow a good project, money will follow a network. Money will follow experience.”

Funding did indeed follow, and H3D now has an annual budget of more than $5m. While tiny by California biotech standards, it is sufficient to make a go of drug discovery in Africa, he says. “We are seeding a pharmaceutical industry with enough critical mass of people who are skilled.”

He is also creating jobs, which is vital he says to help reverse the brain drain. “Why are we bemoaning a lack of scientists? It’s because we can’t retain them. We can’t attract them back.” H3D, he says, is a first step in changing that.

Three questions for Kelly Chibale

Who is your leadership hero?

Neville Isdell. He was the chief executive and chairman of Coca-Cola during a tumultuous period for the company when it was slipping from one crisis to another. Neville famously, courageously and dramatically turned Coca-Cola’s fortunes for the better and has been credited with saving the company. When Neville was persuaded to come out of retirement to take over the role, the chances of failure were high but Neville took on the challenge as he saw it as an opportunity. I was faced with the same challenge of setting up a drug discovery centre in Africa as well as confronting Afro-pessimism, and or debunking the myth that Africa is not, and cannot be, a source of health innovation, for example, to discover new medicines. I saw this as an opportunity.

If you were not a CEO/leader, what would you be?

I would have been a laboratory-based organic chemist making molecules of pharmaceutical relevance. I developed a love for chemistry in high school in Zambia and later organic chemistry, as an undergraduate student at the University of Zambia and as a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, that really helped me find my calling.

What was the first leadership lesson you learnt?

You only learn as a leader when you know what you don’t know, even as you serve. When you know what you don’t know, you can seek help from those who do.

This article first appeared in London’s Financial Times. It may not be republished without that publication’s permission.

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