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The South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) is collaborating with global healthcare companies for research on genetic diversity in Africa.

According to the SAMRC, this comes after the council successfully applied to facilitate the administration of a project jointly funded by multinational pharmaceutical companies, GSK and Novartis in 2019.

The partnership will see the SAMRC, through its Grants, Innovation and Product Development (GIPD) platform, facilitating the administration of Project Africa GRADIENT.

GRADIENT, short for Genomic Research Approach for Diversity and Optimising Therapeutics was initiated in 2018 as a collaboration between GSK and Novartis.

“Its primary aim is to establish a consortium to collaborate with expert academic centres and organisations in Africa to support high-quality research on African genetic diversity of relevance to drug therapeutics.”

Its focus is to evaluate genetic diversity as the contributing factor to the way patients on the African continent respond to drugs used to treat malaria and tuberculosis (TB).

GIPD unit manages external grant funding and innovation activities within the SAMRC through several business units, platforms and programmes.

GSK and Novartis committed combined funding of US$ 3.6 million (R53 593 128) over five years.

SAMRC President and CEO, Professor Glenda Gray, has welcomed the exciting news.

“We are delighted that partners are now seeking to address the challenges of Africa by their quest to understand the fundamental differences between the genetics of Africa and the rest of the world.”

She believes that this move will build on to the already existing partnership with the two pharmaceutical companies over the years.

“In 2017, the SAMRC together with the then Department of Science and Technology (DST) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Novartis which amongst others sought to build scientific capability and potentially lead to breakthrough innovations in South Africa,” Gray added.

In addition, as part of its Africa NCD Open Lab initiative, GSK collaborated with the SAMRC and the UK Medical Research Council to tackle non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Africa in 2014.

The SAMRC President said not only is this partnership in line with the strategic goals of the SAMRC of becoming a globally competitive and locally responsive research organisation, but it also demonstrates the need for greater collaboration.

She said she is always encouraged by collaborations that are designed to improve the health and quality of the lives of the people of South Africa and the broader African continent.

Project Africa GRADIENT comprises three funding mechanisms to support which include fellowships, investigator-sponsored research and seed-fund.

GSK Senior Vice President, Pauline Williams, said human genetics is a core pillar of the company’s research and development strategy.

“Genetic diversity is greater in Africa than in any other continental population resulting in some African patients having varying response to treatments. We are excited to launch Project Africa GRADIENT which aims to catalyse the best science in the continent to optimise treatment responses for malaria and tuberculosis, two infectious diseases that disproportionately affect African populations,” Williams added. 

The Request for Application (RFA) for Project Africa GRADIENT is now open and are welcoming proposals from researchers based at African (North, West, East, Central, and Southern Africa) universities, science councils and other public research organisations to submit their proposals. 

“For the first phase, priority will be given to proposals collating new and available genetic data regarding drug response to malaria and TB treatments by populations of Africa using existing databases, biorepositories or any other data in the public domain among others. Data could contribute to the building of an Africa genetic database.”

Researchers across Africa are invited to express their “intent to submit” through the SAMRC website https://www.samrc.ac.za/request-for-applications/project-africa-gradient.

Final award recipients are expected to be announced by end of 2021.


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