Scientists working at the early stages of drug discovery seldom have direct contact with the patients for whom new medicines are being developed and so may feel “disconnected” from the impact of their work. Similarly, those working at the coalface of healthcare, such as clinicians and medical students, may have little idea of what it takes to bring a new medicine from molecule to market.

To address these gaps, the Holistic Drug Discovery and Development (H3D) Centre has teamed up with SHAWCO Health, a UCT student-run, non-profit community outreach organisation, for a series of events to nurture links between drug discovery scientists and medical students.

At the most recent event, held in October 2021, medical students from UCT and scientists from H3D, as well as postgraduate students from H3D Director Professor Kelly Chibale’s academic research group, gathered at the Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine (IDM) for a tour of H3D’s world-class biology laboratories spanning the disease areas of malaria parasitology, tuberculosis and antimicrobial resistance.

To encourage interaction, and to respect the distancing restrictions currently in place, participants were divided into mixed small groups comprising both students and scientists. As the groups toured the laboratories dedicated to each disease area, challenges unique to the biology of each pathogen were described. Although the malaria parasite, for example, has a complicated life cycle that is shared between the human host and the mosquito vector, this complexity also provides numerous opportunities for targeted chemotherapeutic interventions. The importance of safety was also emphasised; for example, tests on mammalian cells to measure cytotoxicity give an early indication of the selectivity of a potential new medicine. The strict precautions in place when working with a respiratory pathogen such as tuberculosis were highlighted as the groups passed the IDM’s Biosafety Level 3 laboratories. Finally, efforts currently underway to screen libraries of natural products against clinically-relevant antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains (and the associated challenges!) were also described.

Special thanks to Dr Dale Taylor and Dr Carel Oosthuizen for enthusiastically leading the tours and to the H3D Foundation for generously sponsoring the refreshments for the participants. This event was organised by the Community Outreach and Education Subcommittee, an initiative of the H3D Social, Ethics and Transformation Committee.


This H3D-SHAWCO Health event was the third in a series that aims to bridge the gap between the bench and the bedside by building links between drug discovery scientists and future health professionals. At the first event in 2019, medical students presented patient history cases to H3D scientists to give them a bigger-picture perspective of their role in the health sector and to instil a sense of purpose and urgency. H3D also presented an introduction to its African hepatocyte project which aims to investigate drug metabolism in African patient populations. In 2020, just before the national lockdown, a reciprocal visit of UCT medical students to the H3D medicinal chemistry laboratories illustrated in more detail the journey of potentially therapeutic compounds from hit to lead and beyond.


Article written by Dr John Woodland