Ground-breaking work by the University of Cape Town’s Drug Discovery and Development Centre (H3D) in the research and development (R&D) of a potential single-dose cure for malaria has attracted international interest, funding and scientists from around the world.

This work has already had a major impact beyond malaria, says H3D founder and director Professor Kelly Chibale. “The project on malaria has been critical. Through it, we’ve attracted big pharmaceutical companies, funding and scientists. We’re becoming a world-class one-stop shop for drug discovery.”

MMV048, the promising new compound researched by an international team led by H3D and selected for development in 2012, is very potent. It was highly successful in curing malaria in preclinical studies and may be able to block transmission to humans and contribute to the eradication of malaria. It is the first molecule from Africa to undergo clinical trials in UCT’s Phase I Clinical Trials facility.

“We are fortunate to have found a drug that could advance to the clinic. We hope that it will get through the trials, but the most important thing is that we have learnt so much.  We can conduct similar R&D again and again for other diseases, both communicable and non-communicable. We’ve been able to create infrastructure that benefits other programmes,” says Prof Chibale.

H3D’s malaria programme is being conducted in collaboration with Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV), a not-for-profit drug development foundation based in Geneva, Switzerland. MMV048 was selected for further development by MMV’s expert scientific advisory committee in July, 2012. Over the past three years, MMV, H3D and partners have conducted pre-clinical and extensive safety studies on the molecule, and have taken it into the first trial in humans. During this period, the viability of developing a process to manufacture the drug on a large scale has also been explored and a back-up drug is being developed.

“Malaria drug development is not an easy task – it takes R&D excellence, cutting-edge facilities and commitment; H3D has all three,” says Dr Tim Wells, chief scientific officer of MMV. “For MMV, it has been extremely productive to work with H3D, South Africa’s premier centre of research excellence. We are privileged to have helped the facility grow and look forward to continued partnership with them in the future.”

Prof Chibale says H3D’s successful experience in the field of malaria had attracted a range of local and global partners as well as foreign direct investment, while scientists from the USA, Europe, India and Africa had joined H3D since the breakthrough was announced. This includes five experienced senior scientists from the Western pharmaceutical industry, four of whom had a combined average of close to 100 years of pharmaceutical industry experience prior to joining H3D

“Every time a partner comes on board, we create several new high-level scientific positions,” he says. “This has had a positive impact on job creation and provision of career opportunities for early and mid-career scientists.  Leaders in the field with extensive experience have seen the potential of H3D. They want to make a difference and help us train the next generation of African scientists. We’re being seen as a world-class facility and that’s wonderful for R&D in Africa.”

Prof Chibale says there is tremendous talent among African researchers at H3D, while working with global partners had given the centre the opportunity to showcase what science can do.

“R&D is not a luxury. It creates jobs. It brings hope. It helps reverse the brain drain,” he says.

Since 2000, the singular efforts of the global malaria community have succeeded in reducing the number of deaths from malaria by 47%. This has largely been due to the use of bednets, indoor residual spraying and artemisinin-based combination therapies.

The World Health Organisation’s World Malaria Report 2014 reported nearly 200-million cases of malaria worldwide in 2013. Just over 500 000 people died from malaria that year, most of them children and 90% of them in Africa. H3-D recognizes that while significant gains have been made over the past decade, new antimalarial medicines for vulnerable populations are urgently needed.