Let's harness the power of open innovation to tackle NCDs in Africa

The El Fasher Hopsital in North Darfur has three machines for kidney dialysis, but only two are functioning. The lack of innovation and new technology in developing countries is an enormous challenge to improving public health. Photo by: Albert González Farran / UNAMID / CC BY-NC-ND 

Noncommunicable diseases — such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer — can manifest differently in different communities. This is evident in the younger age of African women with aggressive breast cancers and in Africa’s apparently higher prevalence of treatment-resistant hypertension compared to other parts of the world.

For example, in high-income countries, only 7 percent of deaths caused by hypertension occur in people under the age of 60, whereas in Africa, 25 percent of deaths occur in individuals below this age.

It’s an interesting phenomenon that scientists are starting to address. We hope that by learning more about how these terrible diseases behave in different populations — and why — we’ll be better able to tackle them.

According to the World Health Organization, new cases of cancer are expected to rise from 14 million to 22 million over the next two decades. And poorer countries will bear the heaviest burden, with more people expected to die from cancer across developing countries than from malaria, HIV and tuberculosis combined.

This is an enormous challenge for those working in health care and collaboration between governments, business, civil society and the scientific community is needed to address it. To understand more about Africa’s increasing NCD threat, we need to bring together the brightest scientific minds to work as a team rather than struggling alone to find answers. No single country in the region has enough researchers with the appropriate mix of skills required to tackle this challenge.

GlaxoSmithKline is drawing on its research expertise to help kickstart the discovery of new and better treatments for NCDs. But its approach to tackling these diseases in Africa is turning the usual model of closely guarded research and development on its head with the establishment of the world’s first R&D “Open Lab” for NCDs in sub-Saharan Africa. Launched by the company in March 2014, the Africa NCD Open Lab is an innovative research network that will allow researchers across Africa to work hand in hand with GSK scientists on high-quality research focused on improving our understanding of the causes, presentation and progression of disease, and to inform prevention and treatment strategies of NCDs in African patients.

The Open Lab is just one of a series of new investments that GSK is making in Africa to address pressing health needs and support sustainable growth. As well as research and development, the company is investing in building new factories, expanding availability of critical medicines, optimizing supply chains and training health workers.

We know there are fantastic researchers already working on great science in Africa. The Open Lab will provide a platform to support these scientists and capitalize on homegrown talent within Africa to make sure it thrives in the long term. The aim of the lab is not just to break new ground in research discoveries, but to create a new generation of African NCD experts.  

This isn’t the first time GSK has opened the doors of its laboratories to the wider research community. Since 2010, its R&D facility at Tres Cantos near Madrid, Spain, has welcomed external researchers to accelerate the development of new treatments to tackle infectious diseases of the developing world. Here, visiting scientists work on their own research projects, accessing GSK drug discovery expertise, working alongside GSK researchers and taking advantage of the platforms and technologies the company has at its disposal.

This collaborative approach to research is paying off, stimulating new ways of thinking about how to best research these diseases. More than 50 visiting scientists have already made use of the Tres Cantos Open Lab — that’s 50 of the brightest minds researching diseases of the developing world and hopefully making scientific breakthroughs that could one day lead to much-needed new treatment.

The success of Tres Cantos has led many to believe that an open innovation approach could also help us tackle the problem of NCDs in Africa. Before the end of the year, GSK will be launching the Africa Open Lab’s first call for proposals, inviting researchers in sub-Saharan Africa to join this open innovation network. The Open Lab will directly support the training and education of African researchers and fund a portfolio of their NCD-related projects based in their own institutions. This will be a collaborative network, designed to increase the number of researchers working on African NCDs, working together to identify how best to address the rising burden of disease.

The South African and U.K. medical research councils have already endorsed this open research philosophy, pledging financial support for South African researchers doing open research in to NCDs.

The battle against infectious disease has taught us a lot and we have come a long way. The sharing of proprietary information and the formation of innovative partnerships are starting to help break the deadlock on research into diseases like malaria, leishmaniasis and Chagas disease. We think a similar approach can work for NCDs. And with current projections indicating that by 2020 the largest increases in NCD deaths will occur in Africa, there’s no time to lose. It’s time to work together to find solutions to problems that African patients have lived with for far too long.

Want to learn more? Check out the Healthy Means campaign site and tweet us using #HealthyMeans.

Healthy Means is an online conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Concern Worldwide, Gavi, GlaxoSmithKline, International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Johnson & Johnson and the United Nations Population Fund to showcase new ideas and ways we can work together to expand health care and live better lives.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Mike Strange

    Dr. Mike Strange is head of operations for diseases in the developing world at GlaxoSmithKline. He joined GSK in 1999 to work in the portfolio management team, and since then has worked in several positions, including R&D Strategy Director and Head of Business Operations in Global Clinical Development at GSK Vaccines in Belgium. Strange currently supervises initiatives like setting up GSK’s open lab and the Tres Cantos Open Lab Foundation in Madrid, as well as the Africa NCD Open Lab.
  • Moffat Nyirenda

    Moffat Nyirenda is a diabetologist, endocrinologist and professor of Medicine (Global Non-Communicable Diseases) at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and director of the Malawi Epidemiology and Intervention Research Unit. He has a particular research interest in capacity building in Africa, and leads the Southern Africa Consortium for Research Excellence, funded through the Wellcome Trust’s African Institutions Initiative.

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