A network of world-class scientists across Africa has entered the global drug discovery arena after they secured a US$4.7 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) and the medical research charity LifeArc

Led by scientists from the University of Ghana (UG), Pretoria (UP) and Stellenbosch (SU), the network will be at the forefront of developing new drugs in the fight against malaria and Tuberculosis (TB) – two of the world’s top killers that disproportionally affect Africans.

While African countries have made remarkable progress in the fight against malaria and TB, the continent still bears the brunt of infectious diseases burden, with these two age-old diseases killing almost one million people on the continent each year. According to the World Health Organisation, of these, about 600 000 deaths are due to malaria and 400 000 due to Tuberculosis (TB). The continued development of treatment-resistant forms of these diseases means that there is a critical need for innovative tools to eliminate them. 

Leading research efforts on malaria and TB in Africa

Leading the drive to deliver novel malaria drug candidates are Dr Richard Amewu, head of the Drug Innovations Group (DIG) at the University of Ghana (UG), and Prof. Lyn-Marié Birkholtz from the University of Pretoria Institute for Sustainable Malaria Control (UP ISMC) at the University of Pretoria (UP) in South Africa. 

Prof. Birkholtz says the need for antimalarial drugs in Africa is critical since malaria cases are increasing. “We have to propel existing discoveries forward by building on our existing capacity and expertise.”

According to Dr Amewu, this award will complement ongoing efforts by African scientist in contributing to the global efforts in providing solutions to the two diseases,” he says. These efforts will expand the capabilities on the content and build on the leading contributions in drug discovery that stemmed from the Holistic Drug Discovery and Development Centre (H3D) based at Cape Town University in South Africa

The network of scientists working on malaria also includes Prof. Fabrice Boyom at the University of Yaoundé in Cameroon; Prof. Amanda Rousseau at the University of the Witwatersrand; Dr Winston Nxumalo from the University of Limpopo; Prof. Laurent Dembele and Dr Dinkorma Ouloguem from the Université des Sciences, des Techniques et des Technologies de Bamako in Mali. They will interact closely with experts from the University of Dundee’s Drug Discovery Unit in Scotland, the biotech company Lgenia (USA), the Malaria Drug Accelerator (MalDA), and the Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV) as well as the H3D.  

In reaction to the announcement, Dr James Duffy, senior director of drug discovery at MMV, said it is going to be a game changer for African scientists and drug development on the continent: “A unique environment and opportunity have been created where world-class scientists from disease endemic countries can collaborate to discover new drugs to address unmet patient needs on their doorstep.”

In the fight against multi-drug resistant TB, the effort will be led by Prof. Erick Strauss from the Department of Biochemistry at Stellenbosch University (SU), in partnership with Dr Gabriel Mashabela at the South African Medical Research (SAMRC) Centre for TB Research, (also at SU), and teams led by Prof. Adrienne Edkins at Rhodes University (RU) and by Prof. Rajshekar Kapoormath at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) in South Africa, as well as Dr Elizabeth Kigondu and Dr Edwin Murungi at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI). 

According to Prof. Strauss, the aim is to pursue new, previously unexplored avenues for discovering effective treatments against TB. These efforts will complement the many existing drug development efforts led by other international consortia, such as the Tuberculosis Drug Discovery Accelerator (TBDA). 

Dr Clif Barry, chief of the Tuberculosis Research Section at the National Institutes of Health in the United States, says TB and especially multidrug-resistant TB, continue to be a significant health burden in African countries: “It is only fitting that an investment of this scale should be made to support scientists on the continent who are working on solutions for new antituberculosis treatments.” 

Prof. Kelly Chibale, director of H3D and CEO of the H3D Foundation, said “the grant is a major leap forward towards building a critical mass of scientists  fighting these diseases on the African continent.”