South African drug development company iThemba Pharmaceuticals has devised a cheaper way to make the widely used AIDS drug tenofovir and had identified several promising treatments for tuberculosis (TB), Emory University’s Prof Dennis Liotta said yesterday.
US-based Emory is a minority shareholder in iThemba, which is controlled by the Technology Innovation Agency. Founded just over 10 years ago, iThemba secured a technology transfer agreement with Emory and biotech firm Chimerix to develop better HIV and TB drugs.
"We have had some starts and stops with iThemba but we eventually got off the ground and there are a couple of really interesting projects under way," Prof Liotta said in a telephone interview.
The company’s researchers had developed a process that could reduce manufacturing costs for tenofovir "by as much as half", he said. "Nothing is fast in the pharmaceutical arena, but this is something that could have an impact within two years.
"It’s a very exciting opportunity because the economics of therapeutics is the limiting factor in treating people," he said.
Prof Liotta said iThemba had identified several potential compounds for treating TB, which had yielded promising results in animal studies. The feasibility of human trials was being assessed. iThemba was also investigating ways to target cells that harboured TB in its latent form, he said.
Prof Liotta is in SA for today’s launch of a programme to support biotech researchers who want to commercialise their work. The Gauteng Accelerator Programme (GAP) is a joint project between Emory and the Innovation Hub science park, a subsidiary of the Gauteng government’s Blue IQ economic development initiative.
It has the backing of Gauteng economic development MEC Qedani Mahlangu, who emphasised the importance of providing researchers with the skills to get their ideas into the marketplace. "We are focused on building a knowledge economy in (Gauteng) so the importance of research and development and commercialisation cannot be underestimated," she said in a statement.
Innovation Hub CEO McLean Sibanda said: "Researchers by their very nature are not meant to be entrepreneurs. They generate the ideas. The people who have taken inventions to final products are generally not those who conceived the ideas."
SA had yet to discover a novel medicine, Mr Sibanda said, and commercial success was more likely to come from novel drug delivery systems that drew on local nanotechnology strengths.
"If you look at SA, our pipeline for drug development is very thin, but there are significant opportunities for the biosciences (such as) diagnostics, devices, animal vaccines and neutraceuticals."
The GAP-biosciences programme with Emory University had received R5m in seed funding from Gauteng’s economic development department, R1,2m from the national Department of Science and Technology and R1,5m from Emory, Mr Sibanda said.
It will run a competition to identify research teams with the most promising ideas. Winners will get R400000 cash prizes, and mentorship and business support for a year.