An interview with Anthony Mbewu, President of the Medical Research Council, South Africa and next Executive Director of the Global Forum for Health Research
Q: South Africa is currently considering acquisition of a high-throughput screening (HTS) facility that would allow it scale up the screening of natural compounds. At this stage in the development of its biotechnology platform, do you think an investment in HTS is appropriate?
A: I think there is a role for HTS along with other sorts of high-tech technology. What we have done in South Africa in terms of looking for the molecules is to take the approach of looking at natural compounds. The mistake we made in the past was we said, Well there are 2,000 plants that are unique to South Africa; we put them all through HTS and we found nothing. Now, you know, it really doesn’t work that way. So since 1997, South Africa has followed a twin track: one, the classical drug discovery route of taking a plant, getting alcohol and water extracts, putting it through HLPC and trying to find the compounds. But then also having a parallel approach of saying let’s look at the medical folklore, African traditional medicine, where these plants have been used for centuries, often in combination. And let’s get clues from that.
For instance, the clue for one antimalarial that we have characterized came from a plant that was used as an antipiretic. And so we guessed that if this was used as an antipiretic in Kwa Zulu Natal, where malaria was once endemic, perhaps it’s an antimalarial. And behold, we were able to extract three molecules from the plant, and characterize them by NMR. And of course the problem now is how to commercialize them, because we don’t have the funds. The venture capital is not there.
The other thing we realized was that perhaps when these drugs are used in combination, they act more as biologic drugs than chemical entities that follow the ‘Lipinski Rule of 5. ‘And indeed, we found for instance in plants used by traditional healers compounds that are active against mycobacterium tuberculosis, but when you try and extract them and isolate them they fall apart. They’re large molecules, they don’t obey Lipinski’s rules, how they work we don’t know. But clearly studying them is a whole new discipline.
Q: Cuba has been very successful in developing a biopharmaceutical industry despite limited resources. Has it served as a model for South Africa?
A: Yes, President Mbeki sent me as part of a delegation back in 1998. The question was if Cuba could do this in ten years, why can’t South Africa?
Well, one problem is venture capital. I’m a trustee of the only biotech venture capital fund in South Africa, Bioventures. We’ve had a successful first round. But there isn’t money for a second round.
And then the most important single factor is human resources. We don’t have an educated population, we don’t have the PhDs and post docs that you need for a national biotech industry.
Q:There are some innovative approaches to drug development taking place in South Africa. One of them is iThemba Pharmaceuticals, a biotech startup with a high-volume, low-margins approach to developing and commercializing new treatments. Without venture capital, can iThemba or any such effort ever be successful?
A: I think it depends on where you are along the value chain. You need VC at some point because although you can do preclinical Phase I and II without major funding, when you get to Phase III it can be very expensive. It costs between $100 and $500 million in the West. In South Africa, we could probably do Phase III clinical trials for about $50 million. So it’s cheaper, but it’s still hugely expensive, and you have to have venture capital to pay for it.
Q: Without HTS, South Africa must rely on pharma to screen its natural compounds, the therapeutic potential of which is unknown. Does this pose a risk to the country’s intellectual property?
Yes, but the South African government has passed legislation with regard to IP rights. So the latest act stipulates that if the R&D has been done in South Africa, the IP can not be sold overseas. One thing that has done is force pharma to forge collaborations with South African R&D institutions, so rather than simply taking the compound back to a lab in New Jersey, they have to work with a company like iThemba Labs and take the molecule to the market together.