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Grand Challenges Africa: Drug Discovery



Drug discovery excellence is a critical prerequisite for success in drug development and remains a highly neglected area for the African continent. The lack of market incentives has biased drug discovery efforts globally away from diseases most prevalent in the developing world. Collaborative efforts of multidisciplinary teams – in drug discovery and other fields – shows that success and efficiency increases significantly when individual contributors combine their complementary capabilities. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. State-of-the-art approaches to implementing drug discovery projects, especially when the goal is to also build drug discovery capability on the African continent, need to be supported.

Available data show very little drug discovery activity in Africa compared to the rest of the world. This may be related to a lag in technological development; lower infrastructure and service support; sparsely distributed human resources exacerbated by the continued brain drain; and lower funding and support, coupled with depressed interest by the pharmaceutical industry in diseases of poverty. Furthermore, there is a general lack of training in drug discovery, which also holds back the overall development of drug discovery on the continent. Despite these challenges, there is some progress being made and reasons to be optimistic for the future of drug discovery in Africa.

Program Goal

We seek to support exciting new drug discovery projects in Africa. A secondary objective is to strengthen drug discovery capabilities in Africa and create a project-driven virtual African drug discovery network.

This call is a partnership between the African Academy of Sciences (AAS), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV) and the University of Cape Town (UCT) Drug Discovery and Development Centre (H3D).

Applications will be assessed and selected based on scientific merit and their potential to advance the drug discovery process. Selected applicants will also benefit from a network of drug discovery scientists in Africa and across the globe, linking them to peers, mentors and providing them with access to resources and technologies.

There will be a strong preference for Letters of Intent focusing on Malaria or Tuberculosis (TB) but good ideas in Neglected Tropical Diseases will also be considered.

What we are looking to accomplish:

  • Identify new chemical entities (NCEs) with potential for drug development in diseases of local relevance for Africa, starting with hits for subsequent hit-to-lead and lead optimization campaigns.
  • Expand research capacity for drug discovery within qualifying institutions.
  • Strengthen the drug discovery network by building intra-Africa and global links including those identified as having basic and translational science capacities.

To be eligible, applicants must:

  • Have a creative idea for a drug discovery project based on one or more of the following:
    • biological targets
    • biological screens or assays
    • small molecule starting points (hits or leads including purified and characterized natural products)
    • in-vitro and in vivo DMPK | ADME assays and related technologies
  • Work in drug discovery on the African continent
  • Be willing, interested, and able to collaborate with expertise across the continent to share and develop best practices and approaches for drug discovery

These drug discovery projects will be undertaken in the context of the current landscape of drug discovery in Africa. While funding will be allocated to specific research projects, the program also seeks to develop capacity for drug discovery excellence in new regions, either through collaborative work with existing centers of excellence, or by supporting efforts to enhance drug discovery research capacity in a new region. To support and enhance existing drug discovery excellence, long term partnerships will be encouraged and should be demonstrated. For new partnerships, plans to maintain a productive collaborative relationship should be outlined. Applicants will describe their creative idea, but also how their proposals add value to existing infrastructure and expertise, and particularly how any duplicated activities will lead to a sustained opportunity for drug discovery within the region. Drug discovery also demands accurate and detailed record keeping, so ability to develop robust data systems will be required.

What we are NOT looking for:

  • Characterization of natural product extracts, including semi-purified or otherwise
  • Bioprospecting studies for chemical entities, genes, micro-organisms and macro-organisms
  • Biomarkers and diagnostics
  • Projects solely focused on network building, capacity building and infrastructure projects for drug discovery without specific biological targets or screening assays or small molecule starting points
  • Total synthesis or developing synthetic methods

Duration of Award: The maximum duration of the award to grantees will be two years, subject to satisfactory attainment of agreed-upon milestones.

Size of Award: Each project has a term of 24 months beginning from the project start date and the amount awarded is up to USD $100,000.


NOTE: A second round of this request for proposals was run in 2020.

Great ideas come from everywhere.

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The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is part of the Grand Challenges partnership network. Visit www.grandchallenges.org to view the map of awarded grants across this network and grant opportunities from partners.
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