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H3-D: Taking the Lead on Research Innovation

Cape Town's new pharmaceutical development centre hopes to be at the forefront for drug discovery and development.
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University of Cape Town where H3-D is housed. Photo by Ian Barbour.

It is uncommon anywhere in the world to discover, develop, and commercialise drugs all in a single academic setting. But H3-D, a drug discovery and development centre, housed in South Africa’s University of Cape Town (UCT), was founded to do just that.

Addressing the disease burden

H3-D was launched around a year ago under the leadership of Dr Kelly Chibale with initial funding of approximately $4 million. The centre boasts state-of-the-art equipment and world-class scientists from both academic and pharmaceutical industry backgrounds. These researchers and clinicians are working to develop new medicines that can be used to treat diseases like tuberculosis and malaria as well as a range of other diseases that disproportionately affect the African continent.

Africa is faced with many health challenges not least a hefty infectious disease burden and increasingly common chronic conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. Other illnesses including neglected tropical diseases such as leprosy, trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness), and Dengue fever, also continue to lack effective and safe medicines and disproportionately affect the African continent.

Recently, however, there has been a renewed commitment by the international community to combat these diseases. Organisations such as the Sabin Institute (Global Network Neglected Tropical Diseases), as well as Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV), GlaxoSmithKline and UK government's Department For International Development are presently championing the cause, and it is hoped the H3-D centre will provide Africa-driven solutions to these problems.

H3-D was also specially designed to shorten the discovery-to-market time. Drug discovery and development is usually a fairly lengthy process. According to pharmaceutical industry estimates, it typically takes between ten and twenty years for a newly-discovered drug to make the journey from the laboratory to the drug store. It is hope H3-D will be able to cut that period and make drugs available to patients as soon as possible.

Raising awareness and funds

Director Chibale has continually urged African governments as well as philanthropists born or based in Africa to support research efforts on the continent, and H3-D has forged strategic partnerships across the globe to help with expenses. The current research efforts at H3-D are funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the European Union, and Medicines for Malaria Venture, as well as the US National Institutes of Health and the South African Department of Science and Technology, among others.

To increase global visibility of the work at H3-D, the centre is also to host its first international symposium later this year, themed ‘New Paradigms in Drug Discovery: Challenges and Opportunity in Africa’. The three-day symposium will provide an avenue for seasoned drug discovery specialists across the globe to access the ongoing work at H3-D as well as help establish and foster further scientific collaborations.

Building connections and the future

In addition to H3-D’s mission of developing new drugs, Chibale and his team also hope that the centre will serve as a training ground for young African scientists. The establishment of the centre provides a unique opportunity for aspiring scientists to receive interdisciplinary training in chemical and life sciences in addition to acquiring skills in drug discovery and development.

The lack of cutting-edge research facilities in most African countries, as well as the shortage of world-class technical expertise on the continent continues to affect Africa’s ability to contribute to major scientific or technological breakthroughs. This lack of scientific productivity can be traced to economic and basic infrastructure realities in many African countries. These systemic problems need to be addressed for scientific advances to take root. However, it must be noted that a number of pan-African institutes of science and technology have been established in recent years to train young Africans.

While the need for more scientific minds on the continent has been recognised, it is also crucial that the necessary tools and resources – such as research labs, equipment and funds – to pursue relevant and economically viable research projects after training are provided. In Nigeria, for example, thousands of science and technical graduates have been trained over the past decade but limited research and development positions mean finding a livelihood in the sector remains difficult.

Research and development breeds innovation and if Africa is to have any competitive edge in the 21st century, there must be innovation. H3-D may prove to be a beacon of hope on the horizon and should be celebrated.

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