University of Cape Town: Satellite centre to fast-track new antibiotics discovery as drug resistance rises

The newly launched J&J Satellite Centre for Global Health Discovery at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Holistic Drug Development Centre (H3D) hopes to fast track the discovery and development of new antibiotics to curb rising antimicrobial resistance (AMR), which has rendered once effective drugs useless.

Bacterial AMR caused an estimated 1.5 million deaths in 2020, and if not addressed is likely to precipitate future pandemics potentially worse than COVID-19. The time to act is now, said the UCT’s Professor Kelly Chibale, who leads the new centre.

The UCT-based facility was launched on 25 April 2022 and is Johnson & Johnson’s (J&J) second satellite centre. The first was launched in 2021 at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. The new development harnesses the resources of J&J, the world’s largest healthcare company and the technical expertise and talent of the H3D, Africa’s first drug discovery and development institution.

The new J&J satellite centre at H3D will now focus on developing precision antibiotics to treat multidrug-resistant Gram-negative bacteria (MDR-GNB).

The need for this decentralised global scientific network, driven by local innovators focused on driving research and development, to meet urgent health challenges has clearly never been more evident, said Stacy Meyer, Vice President: Africa Implementation & Impact, Global Public Health, J&J.

Rising resistance, new networks

According to World Health Organization (WHO) definitions, antimicrobials include antibiotics, antivirals, antifungals and antiparasitics – medicines that prevent and treat infections in humans, animals and plants, including crops. But AMR can neutralise these treatments, transforming easily treated diseases into killers.

Especially alarming is the rapid global spread of multi- and pan-resistant bacteria (“superbugs”) that cause infections that are not treatable with existing antimicrobial medicines such as antibiotics.

The repercussions for universal public health and the threats to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals are huge, said Professor Chibale, a National Research Foundation A-rated scientist who has been working with J&J since 2016.

“For us, it’s a no-brainer to add bacterial AMR to that portfolio.”

To date, H3D has focused on developing next-generation drug regimens for treating all forms of malaria and tuberculosis (TB). The proliferation of drug-resistant forms of TB emerging worldwide has also heightened the urgency for new medications.

Chibale said, “We’ve always worked to address drug-resistant malaria and TB infections. For us, it’s a no-brainer to add bacterial AMR to that portfolio. We have drug-resistant malaria, which is of course, parasitic AMR. We have multidrug-resistant TB. And now we are adding antibiotic-resistant microbes of bacteria origin. So, again, it’s providing continuity on something that we’ve already been active in.”

Welcoming the partnership, UCT Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng said: “While South Africa’s innovations have positioned the country as a key player in global collaborations around COVID-19 vaccines, the focus on other diseases remains narrow. South Africa needs to serve the continent by proactively developing the skills to address global health issues such as AMR. UCT is proud to be leading the way through H3D.”

Local platforms, robust systems

Chibale said that it was essential to build local platforms such as H3D to create robust systems in Africa, not only to respond to pandemics like COVID-19, but also prepare to respond to future pandemics.

“We have a strong history of building drug development capacity together on the African continent. This new development will help us to engage with that capability and support the innovation ecosystem to thrive and grow.”

Developing African capacity

The new satellite centre will harness Africa’s best scientific talent, who will have the added advantage of being mentored by experienced J&J scientists, he said.

The partnership will also ensure that preclinical drug candidates developed by the new research satellite centre align with South African public health needs and will boost the H3D’s AMR drug discovery portfolio, said Chibale.

“In turn, this will attract additional projects and investments to the region.”

The development also supports the South African Medical Research Council’s efforts to establish a national antimicrobial screening platform at H3D. This will coordinate and accelerate AMR drug discovery research in South Africa

“Building capability in discovery and development in proximity to the patient is critical.”

Additional satellite centres are expected to open in the future, extending innovative, localised research networks and diverse responses to the AMR challenge.

Localised and diverse responses are key, said Chibale.

“Building capability in discovery and development in proximity to the patient is critical because we know that there’s a relationship between the genetics of the population, the socioeconomic environment, and the physical environment in which patients live, and effective treatment outcome.”

Apart from being an anchor point for new partnerships and models in drug development, Chibale sees the UCT centre as a mechanism for use of science in development in Africa, with its heavy disease burden. There was a time when new drugs were developed primarily by the Global North, he said. That had to change by building and retaining local capacity and job creation for young African scientists.

“I’m really hoping this will be a model for us to create an absorptive capacity to attract, develop, nurture and retain talent. As partners [H3D and J&J], we have discussed a mentorship programme so that we can keep talent on this continent.”

Chibale added, “My hope is also to see the expansion and scaling up of the ecosystem and community of this kind of work across the continent so that we can benefit from the economies of scale and catalyse job creation, creating hope and inspiration for youngsters to aspire to be scientists.”

Chibale also called for greater investment.

“If there isn’t a pipeline of projects to do to make use of our platform to fuel clinical trials, we will lose expertise. We need investment in capability and robust infrastructure … Ultimately our first goal is to discover the first antibiotic from an Africa-led international effort in this process. However, as we do that, we must train the next generation to provide continuity in the future.”

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