‘SA must build a science industry’

(John McCann)

(John McCann)


There is a great need to fund talented African scientists — based in Africa — to succeed, rather than just survive, by providing world-class infrastructure. The continent is also facing a lack of scientific entrepreneurship and poorly developed scientific networks between different groups.

Training of scientists in Africa will not succeed and be sustainable without coupling it to the creation of the relevant industry, which will serve the dual purpose of attracting the best talent from among the youth to pursue science and also provide them with actual science jobs and careers upon completion of their degrees.

Many science graduates in Africa are unemployed and the situation is getting worse. Those who can successfully find science jobs overseas do so.

Continuing to emphasise postgraduate (master’s and doctoral) training without coupling it to the creation of career opportunities will merely serve to worsen unemployment and make science even more unattractive as a career option. Ultimately this will undermine sustainable scientific independence for Africa to contribute to various societal and economic challenges the continent faces.

For many PhD graduates in Africa, career opportunities and the necessary infrastructure required to put their training to work is lacking in their home countries or regions.

These have collectively encouraged the brain drain as our most talented young scientists leave the continent. Continuing with the status quo of producing more doctoral graduates will not help.

I’ll go as far as to suggest that, at this juncture, serious consideration should be given to diverting some funds away from doctoral student training programmes to invest in scientific job-creating ventures.

The main problem we’re facing is not too few scientists on the continent but one of not focusing on investing in those who are present on the continent. And particularly those who have demonstrated entrepreneurship in science through contributing to job creation as well as an absorptive capacity to attract and retain talent in Africa and beyond.  Entrepreneurship in science is rarely encouraged.  African universities are slow to follow their Western counterparts in incentivising young scientists to be entrepreneurial.

Moreover, the lack of resources for starting new companies, accessing markets and training for starting and running companies are not readily available to African scientists on the continent. Although there are large numbers of African scientists graduating, as well as a large number who form part of the African diaspora, supporting strong scientists better, ensuring their career progression and supporting scientific entrepreneurship can help to move the continent forward. We need to proactively seek out and nurture existing pockets of excellence in Africa that are both scientifically outstanding as well as entrepreneurial.

The University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Drug Discovery and Development Centre, H3D, exemplifies what is possible. The centre has developed exponentially since it opened in 2011, growing from a staff of five postdoctoral fellows in 2011 to a total of 58 staff members, most of them scientists. The world-class infrastructure has catalysed growth and helped H3D to work more effectively on research, and contributed to attracting partnerships with a range of leading national and international partners in the pharmaceutical industry, government and donors to achieve its goals.

At H3D, we do not only want to train postgraduate students and postdoctoral fellows, but to create jobs as well. In a unique model, career options are often created in situ.  Postgraduate students are immersed in a dual environment; while interacting with H3D scientists they are exposed to H3D projects that are structured as they would be in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries.

H3D has all the initial elements that put it on the trajectory for becoming the first successful drug discovery entity on the African continent. This has the potential to contribute to the prosperity of Africa and could serve as a role model for African nations.

Because innovative drug discovery by its very nature is a long process, requiring more than 10 years from the start of a programme until viable clinical projects can be established —and even more time to achieve regulatory registration — H3D will need sustainable funding at critical mass if it is to succeed.

Should H3D continue to be successful, it could result in the beginning of a home-grown pharmaceutical research and development industry that will focus on the unmet medical needs of African populations, create jobs for skilled African scientists and, if the international experience is anything to go by, it should deliver increasing financial returns to the owners over time.

At H3D, the infrastructure, enabling technology platforms and expertise are in place to be able to deliver on projects. There is also a demonstrated track record of being able to work on small-molecule drugs from the discovery stage to the clinical candidate stage when the molecule is safe and efficacious, and hence ready to be tested in human clinical trials.

And there is a developing continuum from discovery to the clinic with new clinical trial capabilities recently becoming available in the UCT Clinical Research Centre. H3D is also a technology innovation agency platform, critical to the implementation of the department of science and technology’s bioeconomy strategy approved by the Cabinet in 2013.  By virtue of this status, it has strong political and governmental endorsement as a success story in pharmaceutical research and development.

H3D, being the first of its kind on the continent, has put Africa on the drug discovery map internationally and is a unique opportunity to provide a portal of collaborations to major global companies. Internationally, not-for-profit organisations and pharmaceutical companies are seeking to partner with top level universities in science and medicine.

This is starting to happen in Africa and H3D has recently formed research collaborations with pharmaceutical companies such as Novartis, Merck, Janssen and Celgene.  Additionally, not-for-profit organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Switzerland-based Medicines for Malaria Venture are working directly with, and funding, H3D.

As the global biopharmaceutical industry players (including not-for-profit funders of research and development) turn their gaze to Africa as the next frontier, H3D has shown a way in which these collaborative efforts can work. H3D’s track record means it is known internationally as a credible partner and employer.

What is needed is to build on H3D to seed a local innovative pharmaceutical research and development industry, which will work with major multinational pharmaceutical companies to create jobs for skilled scientists and a mechanism for Africa to address the continent’s disease burden.

There is international precedence for this concept, which has been replicated in countries such as Singapore, China and India, where major research centres have been developed by innovative multinational pharmaceutical companies.

Professor Kelly Chibale is the founder and director of the Drug Discovery and Development Centre, H3D, at the University of Cape Town. This is an edited excerpt from his recent keynote address to the fifth #ScienceAfrica UnConference in London, hosted by the Planet Earth Institute

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