Placeholder Banner

Out of Africa: Biomedical Innovation and Expertise

May 28, 2015
Scientific research holds the key to unlocking creative and effective solutions for alleviating the burden of disease on the world’s populations. Developing countries, such as those in sub-Saharan Africa, are disproportionately encumbered by disease – many of which are endemic only to those geographies.  Yet these same regions are a wellspring of innovative and creative ideas that are being used to advance biomedical science and healthcare product development. Research centers within these regions are yet to achieve their full potential due to limited experience in the rigorous procedures of drug and vaccine development. To address this gap in know-how and expertise, multi-faceted collaborations between developing country research centers and biopharmaceutical companies are essential. These relationships can take shape in many ways. Canonical research collaborations wherein a biopharmaceutical company shares its knowledge or assets with a developing country researcher are becoming increasingly common. The biopharmaceutical industry has recognized the impact it can have through capacity building efforts. Companies can either host a developing country researcher at their laboratories, or the company can send employees to work with developing country researchers at their home institutes. Equally important, the industry is supporting the augmentation of healthcare and research infrastructure through training of healthcare providers, sponsoring construction of state-of-the-art hospitals, and donating laboratory equipment to hospital laboratories and research centers. While much progress has been made to increase connectivity between these regions and key industry players, more can, and should, be done.

In an effort to raise awareness of the innovations coming out of one such developing region, BIO Ventures for Global Health (BVGH) will be hosting a sub-Saharan Africa pavilion at this year’s BIO International Convention. For the first time, representatives from Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe will be showcasing their research projects, partnering interests, and unique assets and attributes. The goal of this pavilion is to facilitate connections and partnering discussions between sub-Saharan African institutions and Convention attendees.

Unlike traditional markets, health in sub-Saharan Africa is dually challenged by tropical infectious diseases and rapidly expanding non-communicable diseases. As such, research centers in this region must balance their research activities across a wide array of areas. For example, scientists at two of the pavilion exhibitors, the Kumasi Centre for Collaborative Research in Tropical Medicine (KCCR), located in Kumasi, Ghana, and the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), in Nairobi, Kenya, not only study parasitic diseases endemic to the region, but also study diabetes and hypertension in their respective populations. The scientists are also examining the effect of dual manifestation of non-communicable diseases in the presence of tropical infections.

As diverse as the traditions and cultures are in Africa, so are the genetics of its people. Certain genetic variations are known to contribute to differing effects of pharmaceuticals. Pavilion exhibitor, the African Institute of Biomedical Science & Technology (AiBST), in Harare, Zimbabwe, has developed a Biobank of DNA samples from populations across Africa. AiBST’s scientists, who are experts in pharmacogenetics, utilize the Biobank to study how drugs behave in the presence of specific genetic variations.

With a burgeoning middle-class, an abundance of natural resources, and increasing political stability, sub-Saharan Africa is projected to lead global economic growth within the next five years. In order to prepare for this new market, companies need to assess the effects of their products in African populations. Research centers such as AiBST, as well as Africa-based clinical research organizations including Mauritius-based pavilion exhibitor, Insight Research, present companies with ample opportunities to ensure that their products are safe and effective.

While many products coming on the market are the result of cutting edge medical science, there remains substantial value in learning from healthcare practices of the past. The African continent represents a rich and diverse ecosystem wherein there is an abundance of plants that have been used for centuries by traditional healers to treat a range of ailments. Research organizations in Africa, such as pavilion exhibitors, the Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research (NMIMR), in Accra, Ghana, the National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development (NIPRD), in Abuja, Nigeria, and CIDP Research & Innovation in Phoenix, Mauritius, are tapping into these indigenous resources to understand the science underpinning traditional medicines, with the goal of translating this knowledge into new commercial products available globally.

Africa represents not only a blossoming new market but a continent of varied expertise and innovation that rivals other regions of the world. In order to properly leverage these assets and translate them into accessible products, the biopharmaceutical industry’s active involvement is vital. The sub-Saharan Africa pavilion at this year’s BIO International Convention represents an opportunity to engage several of the continent’s leading research centers and their representatives. It will catalyze cross-sector, trans-continental collaborations that have the propensity to positively impact the health of individuals across the globe.

The sub-Saharan Africa pavilion is made possible through the generous sponsorship of Pfizer, Inc.; Takeda Pharmaceutical Company, Ltd.; Johnson & Johnson; Merck & Co., Inc.; Celgene Corporation; BD (Becton, Dickinson and Company); and SCYNEXIS, Inc.