A team of researchers representing CSIR Biosciences are returning to the classroom in a bid to bring drug discovery and development in South Africa up to speed with the rest of the world.
Dr Chris Parkinson
However, this time around they will not be returning as students but as presenters of a CSIR-devised introductory course that will see these fully-fledged scientists educating their academic counterparts on the mechanics of discovering, designing and seeing a potential drug to commercialisation phase.
According to Dr Chris Parkinson, leader of the discovery chemistry group in CSIR Biosciences and who is spearheading this mission, the course to be hosted by the University of Pretoria (UP) begins on 27 October and ends two days later. It was, ironically, a dispute between Parkinson and peers at UP over the merits of drug design that set the wheels in motion for the conceptualisation of this pilot course, which could evolve into an annual feature. "UP is into target identification, which is really a single aspect of the pharmaceutical process. They eventually challenged us (CSIR) to show academia what drug design involves," he explains.
The course structure follows a series of morning lectures complemented by afternoon workshops on aspects of computational drug design - the latest tool helping scientists to arrive at a near-accurate visualisation of their chemically-based product. The programme provides comprehensive insight into drug development from an overview of the pharmaceutical process to techniques of lead optimisation ending with information on patents, pricing and pitfalls of the drug development industry. Current estimates show that it takes about 10 years on average for a potential drug to progress from drug discovery to stage three of the clinical trial phase. By that time about US $800 million would have been spent on research and development per approved drug. Inventor specific manufacturing continues for the remainder of the patent life (20 years in total) and incurs separate costs. South Africa is a relatively small player in the pharmaceutical industry at present.
For the course, the CSIR has managed to attract funding from the National Bioinformatics Network while international computer company Accelyris has donated temporary molecular modelling licences to each of the postgraduate participants hailing from universities in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape, Stellenbosch and Cape Town - indicating truly national interest.
According to Parkinson, South Africa is only now seeing an overwhelming interest in drug development as the science fraternity is beginning to realise that "one of the measures people look for in the economic development of a country is the status of the pharmaceutical industry. The Department of Science and Technology has recognised this in policy documents and is also investigating the establishment of a national pre-clinical drug development platform," he reveals.
This is another area in which the CSIR has played an advisory role to the DST. The CSIR itself has recently restructured operations in its biosciences domain to reflect the drug and therapeutic discovery value chain, increasing the likelihood of a potential drug lead from these shores in the near future. Four researchers at CSIR Biosciences have also recently returned from a six-month programme on drug design at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia under the tutelage of world drug doyen Professor Dennis Liotta.
"Scientists in South Africa have begun talking about drug design and development but there is little appreciation from a university system on how this works," adds Parkinson. "We hope this initiative will spark new projects, dialogue between people across disciplines and possibly lead to further collaboration," he says.
Enquiries: CSIR Communication