African Academy Of Sciences Initiative Aims To Boost Drug Discovery For Diseases In Africa

In a continent where most countries are struggling to provide for the basic needs of their citizens, investing in innovation, research and development for solutions that could ensure citizens’ well-being is an uphill task.

Entrance to the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) Alupe, Centre near the Kenya – Uganda, in Busia County, Western Kenya. The centre is one of the several research centres for KEMRI, a state corporation that undertakes health research and its scientists are among those eligible for finding under the AAS initiative.

Not spared are key areas like health where a heavy disease burden is taking a huge toll on national budgets through importation of medical supplies and even personnel.

The imports supplied by multinational companies from the West are expensive while affordable generics have to be obtained from Asia.,with the World Health Organization September 2015 bulletin estimating that around 79 percent of all pharmaceuticals in Africa are imported.

Indeed, the inability for African nations to undertake research that could yield effective drugs for treating and managing diseases has compounded the already dire health situation.

Communicable, non-communicable and in between neglected diseases claim many lives, yet drugs and other supplies largely for specialised treatment are either unavailable or inadequate.

Over a decade ago, African governments pledged to boost overall research funding in the 2006 Khartoum Decision of the Executive Council of the African Union (AU) by allocating at least one percent their gross domestic product (GDP) to stir research and development, but years later it has remained a chosen but less-trodden route [pdf].

The scenario has prompted the African Academy of Sciences (AAS) to offer a remedy, targeting the health sector. The academy and partners have invested in funding to develop the capacity of African scientists to engage in drug discovery.

AAS is a pan-African Kenya-based organisation with a mandate of pursuing excellence through recognising scholars, providing advisory, shaping the continent’s strategies and policies and implementing science, technology and innovation programmes to tackle developmental challenges. Its initiatives are undertaken through the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA).

The academy, in collaboration with South Africa’s University of Cape Town (UCT) Drug Discovery and Development Centre (H3D), Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV), and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have committed funding for the discovery of new drugs for diseases endemic to Africa over the next two years.

The new funding announced on 27 June is for drug discovery and is in the amount of up to $100,000 per project to researchers in Africa.

It endeavours to create a network of drug discovery and development scientists that will initiate, develop, share, evaluate and disseminate best approaches and practices within the research community in Africa.

The recent call is the third one for proposals administered by the AAS’ Grand Challenges Africa (GC Africa), a scheme implemented through the AAS and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) Agency’s Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA).

Speaking during the launch, AESA Director of Programmes Tom Kariuki said the partnership will benefit Africa by developing the capacity and augmenting efforts to discover and develop drugs for diseases that are prevalent on the continent.

He added that that the move will correct the market bias in drug development for diseases that are common on the continent but ignored by external players in the pharmaceutical industry, an aspect that has seen drug discovery efforts on the continent hampered.

In a fact sheet prepared by AAS, Africa represents 17 percent of the world’s population but bears a disproportionate 25 percent of the global disease burden with sub-Saharan Africa carrying 90 percent of the global cases of malaria.

Moreover, 2.5 million people who suffered from tuberculosis in Africa in 2016 represented a quarter of new TB cases in the world. The continent is also faced with a growing drug resistance situation.

In an interview with Health Policy Watch, Moses Alobo, programme manager, GC Africa at the AAS, said they are seeking innovative ideas that will lead to new chemical entities for malaria, TB and neglected tropical diseases.

According to Alobo, the call is being conducted in a collaborative manner with capacity building in mind to increase drug discovery capacity across the continent. “All new chemical entities identified would have the potential to progress on the drug development pathway,” he explained.

Selection, Alobo said, still ongoing and shortlisted applicants will get a chance to participate in a global drug discovery conference in Berlin in October 2018.

They have had three calls under Grand Challenges Africa, he said. The first one was on Maternal, Neonatal and Child Health (MNCH), with the aim of stimulating new approaches, interventions, tools and new combinations of existing approaches that ensure Africa progresses rapidly to address challenges in MNCH.

The second call, he stated, was on Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR). Its main aim was to focus African scientists to work in local and global partnerships on accelerating knowledge generation, developing and deploying interventions and innovations in antimicrobial resistance.

The third call was on drug discovery. It sought to identify new chemical entities for malaria, TB and neglected tropical diseases while at the same time strengthen the drug discovery community in Africa and in doing so catalyse the increase in capacity across the continent, Alobo said.

He reiterated that researchers from all walks were eligible to send proposals. “Research is a collaborative process. In fact, those researchers who are members of a highly developed research ecosystem usually do better than those that are not well organised. A researcher who is not affiliated to a university or government research body could do well if their research governance and support systems are well structured and especially if they have very strong collaborators within their research network,” he emphasised.

Key neglected tropical diseases of interest under the initiative include: visceral leishmaniasis, food-borne trematodiasis, schistosomiasis, hookworm disease, lymphatic filariasis, ascariasis, rabies, onchocerchiasis, dengue and trichuriasis and human African trypanosomiasis.

Kelly Chibale, director of H3D at UCT, said the programme focusses on investing in researcers on the continent. “The partners involved are proactively seeking to identify and fund talented African-based scientists to succeed and not to merely survive,” he said.

He added that the move will result in an increase in the numbers of African drug discovery scientists and quality drug discovery science undertaken in Africa by Africans.

Alobo said the funding encompasses training needs assessment, mentor matching, intellectual property protection, commercialisation training and entrepreneurship training. It also involves market research and assessments, innovation plans development and training on good financial grant practise.


Image Credits: Justus Wanzala.

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