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Africans to control own pharma research with boost from McGill, Gates Foundation

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Published: 27 Oct 2008

Dr. Timothy Geary awarded $100,000 grant to help establish programs in Botswana and South Africa

Dr. Timothy Geary awarded $100,000 grant to help establish programs in Botswana and South Africa

A McGill University parasitology researcher has received a $100,000 grant from the Gates Foundation to help establish locally controlled pharmaceutical-research programs in Botswana and South Africa.

“People are always asking why the pharmaceutical industry doesn’t do very much work on diseases of the poor, like parasitic infections,” said Dr. Timothy Geary, of McGill’s Institute of Parasitology. “There’s a simple answer: they don’t make any money at it, just as road building companies don’t build roads for free in Africa. The real solution to the problem is to develop indigenous capacity. There’s no reason it shouldn’t work, Africans have historically been very good at all kinds of research, for instance, in natural products chemistry.”

Geary, McGill’s Canada Research Chair in Parasite Biotechnology, is an expert in the area of antiparasitic drugs. He points out that over the last couple of decades, drug companies have largely stopped screening chemicals derived naturally from tropical plants or microbes – a major source for antiparasitics – for both economic and political reasons.

“Over the last 15 or 20 years there has been tension between the industrialized north and the developing south over this issue,” he continued. “There was a sense in the south that people from the north were simply looting this resource. We called it bioprospecting; they called it ‘biopiracy,’ which caused obvious problems in negotiating access and contracts.”

Moreover, said Geary, philanthropic attempts to establish a pharmaceutical research base in Africa often fail because they lack the crucial element of sustainability: Donations of expensive high-tech equipment typically do not take long-term maintenance into account, for example.

“African researchers are just as capable as anyone else of utilizing the highest high technology,” he said, “But once the laser goes out or the microprocessor fails, getting a piece of high-tech lab equipment repaired is a real challenge.”

Geary’s program, developed in close concert with colleague Dr. Eliane Ubalijoro of McGill’s Centre for Developing-Area Studies, replaces high-technology screening apparatus with genetically engineered yeast strains and E. coli bacteria. These organisms have been modified to produce proteins normally only found in parasitic worms, making them an ideal laboratory test-bed for potential antiparasitic drugs.

“The very survival of the microbe is dependent on the function of the parasite protein,” Geary explained. “So if a drug is working, it will affect the growth of the organism. This is easy to monitor, because these organisms are extremely well understood. It’s a very robust system.

“This way, instead of shipping the chemicals to the high-throughput, mechanism-based screening processes that drive the pharmaceutical industry, we bring the process to the chemicals. Africans will do the research and own the intellectual property. This creates sustainability: if you can license the products of your screening, you have a revenue stream.”

In the longer term, Geary hopes to assemble chemical collections from various researchers across Africa.

“We are guessing that we need to get around 50,000 novel chemicals that might be of interest to western pharmaceutical companies,” he said. “My belief, coming from the industry, is that if you provide this resource at a reasonable cost, they will subscribe to it.

“The other goal, that’s very important, is that Africans should be leading this program in the very short term, two to three years. I hope to make myself irrelevant.”

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