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[CAPE TOWN] A "holistic" research centre described as the first of its kind in Sub-Saharan Africa to bridge the gap between basic sciences and drug development was launched in South Africa last week (7 April).

The Drug Discovery and Development Centre, known by the acronym H-3D, will focus on developing and testing preclinical drug candidates for diseases afflicting the continent, and will train African scientists in skills needed for drug discovery, integrating medicinal chemistry, biology and pharmacology.

It will allow "Africans to find their own solutions to their own health problems," said Kelly Chibale, founding director and a chemist at University of Cape Town (UCT), which will host the centre.

The aim is to achieve a "critical mass of personnel" to help make Africa competitive enough to attract  contracts from the pharmaceutical industry and research organisations, and create jobs in Africa, Chibale said.

"South Africa has a strong reputation in developing basic sciences and clinical studies, so researchers will bridge the gap that has always existed in translating knowledge into new medicines," Chibale told SciDev.Net. But he added that even South Africa, the most technologically advanced economy in Sub-Saharan Africa, has gaps in knowledge and expertise of the drug discovery chain — something the centre will try to fill.

Research will focus on drugs for the treatment of malaria, tuberculosis and cardio-vascular diseases.

Mamphela Ramphele, chairperson of the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), South Africa, said researchers should seize this opportunity to also tackle diseases such as typhoid, cholera and river blindness, which are largely confined to Africa.

But it will be a long time before drugs could start rolling out, Chibale cautioned: "I don't want to create any unrealistic expectations. We will kiss many frogs before meeting the prince."

Timothy Wells, chief scientific officer at the Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV) told SciDev.Net the centre is an opportunity to provide original home-grown drugs for diseases that developed countries hardly pay attention to.

Apart from the MMV, the centre is collaborating with the US National Institutes of Health's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and pharmaceutical companies such as Novartis and GlaxoSmithKline.

The MMV and the TIA will co-fund H-3D to the tune of 20 million rand (around US$3 million) for the next four years. The MMV will also sponsor mentoring programmes for South African researchers.