UCT’s H3D spearheads Africa’s drug discovery accelerator programme

13 March 2024 | Story Kamva Somdyala. Photo Lerato Maduna. Read time 2 min.
Prof Kelly Chibale (right) is the founder and director at UCT’s H3D centre.
Prof Kelly Chibale (right) is the founder and director at UCT’s H3D centre.

The University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Drug Discovery and Development Centre (H3D) will play a pivotal role in supporting the Grand Challenges African Drug Discovery Accelerator (GC ADDA) network as they advance nascent drug discovery research through the support of LifeArc and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Through a US$7.2 million joint investment, the collaboration will support five African drug discovery projects over three to five years. Launched in 2018, the GC ADDA programme was developed to identify and support exciting new drug discovery projects in Africa, strengthen the continent’s drug discovery capabilities and create a project-driven virtual African drug discovery network.

The H3D Foundation will lead the formation of the GC ADDA network, which will work together to attract increased investment and strengthen the research infrastructure. The network will provide a framework for greater collaboration, shared training initiatives, and increased community engagement and public outreach.

“This is an important step towards expanding the drug discovery ecosystem and community in Africa so we can benefit from economies of scale and seed a continent-wide innovative pharmaceutical industry that will contribute to a global pipeline of medicines, create jobs and retain talent on the African continent,” said Professor Kelly Chibale, the founder and director at H3D.


“The centre has grown from five postdoctoral scientists in chemistry in 2011 when research programmes started to a 75-person organisation today.”

Professor Chibale’s area of expertise is in the early stages of the discovery of new medicines and the development of tools and models to contribute to improving treatment outcomes in people of African descent. The centre he steers has created an integrated platform that brings together scientists from the disciplines of chemistry, biology, and pharmacology.

“These did not exist when I joined UCT 28 years ago. The centre has grown from five postdoctoral scientists in chemistry in 2011 to a 75-person organisation today, representing multiple scientific disciplines, project management, business development, operations, and finance.” 

Translational research

Head of research operations and business development at H3D, Dr Susan Winks, said: “Building on the success of the GC ADD programme over the past five years, Africa can take the next step forward in creating a sustainable innovative drug discovery ecosystem and solving the biggest infectious disease burdens faced by the continent.

“This investment in drug discovery research is an inflection point for the African drug discovery community and will allow us to shift the emphasis from academic research projects into translational research. These consortia include all the different disciplines to support drug discovery and are supported to deliver lead candidates that could feed into pipelines for new treatments for malaria and tuberculosis.”

Chibale said H3D will capacitate the network in multiple ways. They will provide:

  • access to H3D drug discovery platforms, services and data
  • mentorship: participation in the H3D Global Health Mentorship Programme
  • drug discovery training: preferential access to drug discovery workshops and webinars
  • opportunities for scientific sabbaticals: researchers and students can spend a period of time at the H3D laboratories to learn particular techniques or access equipment
  • project management support: bi-monthly meetings to identify and reduce bottlenecks, share challenges and learnings around operational issues; identify and support additional grant initiatives
  • access to H3D networks: important linkage to accessing external discipline-specific knowledge and access to opportunities through the broader H3D global network.

“The focus is on executing projects and in the process build capacity. It is building capacity while getting the job done. This is the model pioneered by H3D in Africa. Scientists from multiple countries across Africa have been brought together through a network of research and funding partnerships,” he noted.

Community of practice

Dr Winks added: “The vision for the GC ADDA network is to formalise the community of practice to leverage the drug discovery research expertise, capabilities, infrastructure, and resources across the continent to support infectious disease drug discovery research. Together, the GC ADDA network will jointly prosecute disease centred flagship projects to boost the pipeline of innovative therapies for the major infectious diseases relevant to the continent.”

Some of the flagship projects include the discovery of novel antimalarial lead candidates in Africa (University of Ghana); pursuing targeted protein degradation as a new strategy for antituberculosis drug development (Stellenbosch University); the African DMPK Research Network (African Institute for Biomedical Research, Zimbabwe) and building a natural product library (Buea University, Cameroon).

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