Bridging The Gap

SPARK Africa initiative launched at collaborative meeting

SPARK Africa initiative launched at collaborative meeting

As scientists in Africa look to build their own biotechnology ecosystem, SPARK at Stanford in collaboration with the African Institute of Biomedical Science and Technology (AIBST) held a multi-day bootcamp and conference on March 27-31, 2023 to bring African scientists together and launch the SPARK Africa initiative to support African innovation.

Held in beautiful Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, the three-day educational bootcamp and two-day conference included African scientists from all over the continent to hear talks from African life sciences leaders, learn about the process of translational medicine, and work together towards solutions for African populations.

Many researchers at African institutions have acquired a wealth of expertise in biomedical research, yet there remains a lack of resources, funding and collaboration, as well as a lack of an established pharmaceutical or biotechnology industry, to convert discoveries into clinical solutions for African populations. SPARK at Stanford Founder and Co-director Daria Mochly-Rosen said, “Funding for research comes mainly from donor groups outside of Africa and is restricted to neglected tropical diseases, HIV, malaria, and the like, limiting funding and resources for researchers to pursue their interests in other diseases that commonly afflict Africans, including diabetes, cancer, hypertension, preeclampsia, etc.”

Speakers at both the bootcamp and conference emphasized the need for an internal, self-driven and funded ecosystem in Africa for drug discovery, research and development. To that end, the bootcamp provided African scientists with education and hands-on training on skills, tools and approaches they would need to translate discoveries into products. Discussions were held at both the bootcamp and conference regarding challenges in drug R&D in Africa and potential solutions that participants could enact collaboratively to further funding and support of local translational medicine.

Bootcamp provides translational research learning experience

The 3 day-long intensive bootcamp included lectures, case study presentations, panel discussions, and collaborative group workshops. AiBST CEO and SPARK Africa Director Collen Masimirembwa and SPARK at Stanford Co-director Kevin Grimes presented welcome remarks, and the 36 African scientists in attendance introduced themselves, representing countries all over the continent including Zimbabwe, South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania.

During a panel discussion on challenges of product development in academia and in Africa in particular, the main challenge identified was lack of sufficient research funds to de-risk research work in Africa. It was proposed that African governments and philanthropists should be approached to request increasing research funds and support for both basic and translational research. A panel discussion on challenges in product commercialization highlighted the fact that African governments are ready to fund product commercialization if the developed product(s) add value to people’s lives in Africa.

Prof. Masimirembwa spoke about his own experience during a lecture on pharmacogenomics in precision medicine. Many drug dosing guidelines are typically based on people of European ancestry and fail to account for genetic variants in African populations. Prof. Masimirembwa and colleagues have identified unique variants of drug metabolic genes in Africans that resulted in patients responding differently to drugs like efavirenz, an HIV therapy, and the cancer drug tamoxifen. Even after they suggested new clinical guidelines, it remains difficult to implement pharmacogenomic-guided precision medicine in Africa to improve treatment outcomes for millions of patients.

The bootcamp also included an opportunity for groups to work together to develop a mock Target Product Profile, a crucial step in drug development, and pitch the product to other attendees. SPARK Associate Director Peter Santa Maria first led a workshop on using design thinking during translational research, then participants teamed up in small groups to brainstorm a TPP for a hypothetical product. One group developed an innovative and extensively planned product – a monoclonal antibody produced in plants to treat liver cancer – and also presented their mock TPP to leaders at the subsequent conference.

John Mark Bwanika of Rocket Health, who attended the event, said, “The SPARK Africa bootcamp and conference was very enlightening to the gaps within the translational science domain but, more importantly, the opportunities that African scientists can harness to change the landscape for scaling and commercialization of science outputs. It was a great opportunity to meet thought leaders from the continent and interact with seasoned scientists from Stanford University. Partnerships have already started being forged.”

Insightful talks and discussions at conference

During the 2-day conference, African life sciences leaders spoke about their own work and challenges faced when conducting translational research and product development in Africa.

Robert Karanja, Co-founder and Chief Research Officer of Villgro Africa, spoke about how to develop a venture capital ecosystem in Africa. Dr. Karanja discussed how Villgro Africa, a pan-African business incubator & early-stage investor in health and life sciences, supports African innovators with investment and advice. He discussed challenges in making private sector investments and how Villgro addresses these issues.

Ereck Chakauya, Manager of the African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD)/Southern Africa Network for Biosciences (NEPAD SANBio), then spoke about the African Union’s vision for drug discovery in Africa. He discussed some examples of internal African R&D and emphasized the need for coordination and collaboration.

Prof. Masimirembwa discussed his work developing GenoPharm, a pharmacogenetic test to identify at-risk patients and design doses for medicines, thereby improving treatment outcomes in understudied populations.

A panel discussion on establishing an African biotechnology ecosystem suggested harnessing the research capacity already being produced by African scientists while building capacity in young scientists, and identified the need for collaboration among African research institutions.

Additionally, Amon Murwira, the Zimbabwe Minister of Higher and Tertiary Education, spoke about Zimbabwe’s Education 5.0 initiative to drive industrialization in the country. Prof. Murwira also announced that three SPARK Africa projects will be supported with seed funding of US$10,000 each from the Government of Zimbabwe to support the development of novel solutions for health.

Innocent H. Peter of Tanzania Better Health said of the event, “Attending the SPARK Africa bootcamp and conference on translational research was an incredible opportunity for me and provided me with invaluable insights and knowledge. As the only attendee from Tanzania, I had the privilege of interacting with renowned experts in the field and learning about cutting-edge research and developments. The event also included being the first members of the SPARK Africa team which is going to see revolutions in translational research and science in Africa. I look forward to the implementation on what we learned and discussed and the brighter Africa in science.”

SPARK Africa initiative launches

The meeting officially launched the initiative to develop SPARK Africa, a network of translational scientists across the African continent. SPARK Africa’s vision is to enable academics to develop and commercialize pharmaceuticals, vaccines, diagnostics, and other life science products in Africa, by Africans, that address Africa’s unmet health needs.

SPARK Africa will support translational projects with scientific and technical knowhow, access to specialized resources, and seed funding to de-risk projects at various stages of product development and commercialization. The organization will establish a steering committee to run SPARK Africa, map scientists and innovators and identify potential funding sources, establish working groups, provide ongoing education and training, and with Stanford’s collaboration will conduct an annual SPARK Africa event.

Dr. Mochly-Rosen said, “Strengthening translational research knowhow and increasing access to biopharma experts will increase the chance that African researchers’ early discoveries will be moved to drug development efforts in industry. Through our organization, we also hope to provide exposure to their projects so that funders will become aware of the value in supporting any excellent project, not only those addressing a current portfolio of neglected tropical diseases and the like.”

Prof. Murwira added, “We believe that this exchange of ideas and strategy will give birth to a translational research ecosystem that will bring together the many efforts that are coming up as Africa calls for better health and wellbeing for the Africa we want.”