In the Spotlight: The Scientists Behind H3D

09 Dec 2022
09 Dec 2022

For this interview, H3D sat down with Kathryn J. Wicht, a Research Officer at H3D, and Preshendren Govender a Senior Investigator at H3D.

The interview unpacks the barriers they’ve faced during their work, shares key learnings from their attendance at the H3D symposium, and draws out their insights on the complexities of the drug discovery and research space in Africa.

Here’s what they have to say.

According to you, what are the most significant barriers to drug discovery in Africa, and how can they be addressed?

  • Kathryn: Infrastructure and access to necessary laboratory reagents, consumables, equipment, and technology are significant hindrances to drug discovery in most African countries. Funding is an obvious challenge, but having the necessary systems in place to allow for essential practical tasks (such as ordering chemicals, receiving samples, maintaining lab spaces and organisation of human resources) is just as important. The right partners and support from local institutions, government agencies and industries within the African country are also vital. These aspects will only be addressed through a deliberate and focused effort, primarily through effective communication with the relevant stakeholders.
  • Preshen: Networking and partnership opportunities in drug discovery performed in Africa are rare, particularly funding opportunities in the field. Drug discovery is team-based, so knowing and applying your strengths is critical. It's also important to have a network of partners to assist with the various stages of drug discovery to drive the drug discovery pipeline. This will, in turn, attract local and international funders to support African initiatives, further promoting drug discovery on the continent.

You recently participated in the H3D Symposium on opportunities in infectious drug disease discovery. What are some of the key learnings you picked from this event?

  • Kathryn: The symposium served as an excellent platform to enrich my understanding of the different aspects of drug discovery (including chemical series in development and drug targets for malaria, tuberculosis and antimicrobial resistance), interact with like-minded scientists and explore opportunities for collaboration. Presentations on African P. falciparum parasites' genetic changes particularly interested me as they align with my area of research.
  • Preshen: It was a complete honour to share our research at the H3D symposium, especially with leaders advancing drug discovery in the field of infectious diseases. The event provided a space to showcase world-class drug discovery from Africa and promote collaboration with the international community. From a personal perspective, my recent participation at the H3D symposium further solidified my career choice as a medicinal chemist and my passion for drug discovery.

Given the complex nature of the drug research and innovation space - from a lack of funding and resources to scientific roadblocks – do you believe that symposiums such as the one hosted by H3D could drive progress in this field? If so, how?

  • Kathryn: Meetings, such as the H3D Symposium, help drive progress, primarily through networking, spotlighting key issues, and discovering new ways to collaborate and support one another. Compared to online or virtual meetings, I believe in-person meetings have a more significant impact in showcasing the successes and challenges of African researchers to international scientists and organisations.

Preshen: Most definitely, I believe such symposiums provide the opportunity for young African scientists to share their research with both the local and international drug discovery community. From the African scientist's point-of-view, an event like this provides a platform to communicate their science on a world stage and provides opportunities for career development. Whilst from the perspective of the international scientific community, the symposium offers opportunities to showcase drug discovery in Africa. The hope is that it will also aid in reducing the stigmas surrounding drug discovery research performed on the African continent. 


What impact would stronger partnerships and collaboration in drug discovery on the continent have on the global pharmaceutical market?

  • Kathryn: H3D exemplifies how strong partnerships and collaborations play a significant role in the success of drug discovery programmes. Being able to take lead compounds to clinical studies successfully is hugely beneficial to the global pharmaceutical market, not only because there could be new marketable drugs available but also because pharmaceutical companies can benefit from the insights and expertise of African scientists and healthcare providers.
  • Preshen: Stronger drug discovery partnerships and collaborations will provide much-needed support to the African scientist. Particularly for those African scientists who have expertise in specific areas of drug discovery and need to broaden their repertoire and/or those with a new area of interest but lack the full suite of expertise required to deliver a drug to the pharmaceutical market.


How would this influence Africa's health outcomes?

  • Kathryn: There is an urgent need for new therapies for some of the deadliest diseases affecting the economy and people's general well-being in many African countries. Partnering with African scientists and healthcare providers will make it possible to develop drugs aimed at African populations, primarily because Africans have different metabolomes and therefore metabolise drugs distinctly from others. A pipeline of drugs is needed so that there is always a backup series in development to assist when there is resistance to frontline treatments. Now more than ever, African scientists should feel empowered to contribute to drug discovery for diseases that affect their communities. This will further attract funding into the country and increase scarce skills, having an overall positive impact on the country's health and economy.
  • Preshen: Apart from the political will and government-led planning and financing needed to fully overcome some of Africa's health challenges, strengthening partnerships and collaborations with the private sector will continue to lay the foundation needed to support and overcome the issues faced in the African health system. Furthermore, researchers on the African continent can focus on overcoming unique challenges faced in the African health sector by addressing the need to identify drugs that combat and overcome burdens faced by neglected diseases, such as malaria and TB.


What key steps do you feel need to be taken to support drug discovery on the continent – from human resource to financing – and to scale the crucial work of African scientists?

  • Kathryn: African scientists need to engage with local private and government agencies to define goals, outline benefits and discuss the requirements to overcome country-specific challenges. We need to work together from the ground up to build the necessary capacity in the long term, with each scientist focusing on their individual strength and what they can bring to the table. 
  • Preshen: Key steps include investing in building proper infrastructure (such as laboratories), capacity-building efforts (training and providing support to young scientists), involving the national government (by overcoming red tape) and collaborating with the private sector (for financial aid). This team-based collaborative ideology on the African continent has the potential to shorten drug discovery timelines and could result in the swifter identification of efficacious and affordable drugs.