WIPO Re:Search supports the battle against malaria

September 2018

By Professor Katherine Andrews, Deputy Director, Griffith Institute of Drug Discovery (GRIDD), Griffith University, Queensland, Australia

Malaria is among the world’s top killers. Despite progress in reducing mortality and infection rates, this mosquito-borne disease remains a major global health challenge. In 2016, alone, an estimated 216 million cases of malaria were reported, according to the World Health Organization. While this was a significant decrease (some 18 percent) on 2015 estimates, malaria continues to claim more than 400,000 lives every year. Commitment and innovative thinking are needed to help eradicate this scourge.

Innovative thinking is needed to eradicate the mosquito-borne disease, malaria, which claims more than 400,000 lives every year. WIPO Re:Search is helping to strengthen the global malaria research landscape through its scientific exchange program (photo: Konstantin Nechaev / Alamy Stock Photo).

Tackling malaria is a complex undertaking that involves the combined efforts of researchers, public health experts, industry, politicians, civil society groups, and many others. Of course, it also requires significant investment, which is often in short supply.

Enter WIPO Re:Search, a consortium led by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and Bio Ventures for Global Health (BVGH) that brings together over 100 partners from government, academia, and industry. WIPO Re:Search leverages resources, know-how, expertise, and infrastructure to catalyze the development of more effective vaccines, drugs, therapies, and diagnostic tools to prevent and treat neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), malaria, and tuberculosis. It makes an important contribution to meeting the global malaria challenge by linking industry players with academic research groups, and government funding.

Strengthening the global research landscape

Strengthening the global research landscape by fostering scientific collaborations between researchers working on NTDs, malaria and tuberculosis is a critical part of WIPO Re:Search’s mandate. With its consortium partner, BVGH, WIPO Re:Search facilitates such collaborations through a scientific exchange program which promotes capacity building and joint R&D by arranging sabbaticals for interested scientists from developing countries at research institutions in Australia, Europe, and the USA.

Thanks to funds from the Australian Government under a funds-in-trust (FIT) arrangement, this program has a proven track record of success since its inception in 2013. The program initially placed six researchers from Africa at pharmaceutical companies and leading universities in Europe and the USA for periods of up to one year. An additional injection of funds from Australia in 2016 is now supporting 10 researchers from the Asia-Pacific region to undertake research in five Australian research institutes, including the Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery (GRIDD) at Griffith University in Queensland. 

Dr. Mohammad Shafiul Alam took part in a WIPO Re:Search scientific exchange program funded by the Government of Australia. His six-month fellowship at Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery (GRIDD) at Griffith University in Australia enabled him to advance his research on the development of antiplasmodial compounds from natural products (photo: Courtesy of Dr. Mohammad Shafiul Alam).

That’s how we came to work with Dr. Mohammad Shafiul Alam, a scientist at the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research (icddr,b), in Dhaka, Bangladesh, a country where malaria remains a major public health challenge.

GRIDD’s biomedical expertise and commitment to developing effective new drugs to prevent malaria made it a perfect destination for Dr. Alam, whose research interests include malaria drug resistance, point-of-care diagnostics for infectious diseases, host-parasite interactions and vector control. 

Collaborative research for better research outcomes

Dr. Mohammad Shafiul Alam (above left) and Dr. Katherine Andrews
(above right). The Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery (GRIDD) is one of
five research institutes hosting researchers from the Asia-Pacific region
thanks to funding from the Government of Australia (photo: Courtesy
of Dr. Mohammad Shafiul Alam).

There is no doubt that collaboration is a cornerstone of scientific endeavor, and is widely recognized as a means of improving the quality of research, leading to outcomes with positive, far-reaching impacts. Researchers from both developing and developed countries are investing their time, energy and expertise in tackling some of the world’s most intractable health challenges and it makes sense to join forces to solve these problems. Joint efforts, such as those facilitated through the WIPO Re:Search FIT scientific exchange program, enrich health research and advance the development and diffusion of effective solutions that might not otherwise be possible.

Dr. Alam’s six-month fellowship at GRIDD proved extremely fruitful. His contributions seeded many exciting opportunities to exchange knowledge and ideas and provided a level of personal interaction that email and Skype cannot achieve.

Benefits of shared learning

The value of the collaboration became clear as soon as Dr. Alam presented his research to colleagues in a seminar at GRIDD and shared insights about life as a researcher in a resource-constrained malaria-endemic region. His accounts of the daily challenges researchers face in Bangladesh, including, for example, maintaining the viability of samples without highly specialized laboratory equipment, reminded us of the harsh realities many face in resource-challenged environments. Like many research groups working in well-equipped labs in non-endemic areas, we rarely hear about these conditions. Insights like those gained at GRIDD though Dr. Alam’s visit are critically important to generate realistic, relevant and effective solutions to tackle malaria and other infectious diseases, especially in endemic-country settings.

It is hard to imagine the stark differences in laboratory conditions, approaches and culture without first-hand experience of them and, importantly, the luxury of time. The simple phrase “We do it differently in our lab” takes on new meaning when it can be followed with “How?”, “Why?” and “Can you please show me?” The trust, confidence and insights that flow from such interactions can generate significant benefits in terms of the quality of outcomes and the success of research collaborations. This premise is borne out by bioethicists Michael Parker and Patricia Kingori, whose work explores how scientists evaluate a positive research collaboration.

What scientists want from a collaboration:

  • Active involvement in cutting-edge, interesting science
  • Effective leadership
  • Competence in and commitment to good scientific practice
  • Capacity building
  • Respect for the needs and agendas of all partners
  • Opportunities for discussion and disagreement
  • Trust and confidence
  • Justice and fairness in collaboration

According to bioethicists Michael Parker and Patricia Kingori

A long-term benefit of hosting a WIPO Re:Search FIT fellow is the opportunity to provide mentoring or advocacy support well beyond the term of the fellowship. This can range from practical advice on grant or manuscript drafts or input on presentations, to more strategic, long-term, career-development strategies. Network sharing is also a great opportunity and benefits both the fellow and the host, providing mutual opportunities to develop new contacts through each other’s connections. A tangible outcome of Dr. Alam’s fellowship at GRIDD was his appointment as an Adjunct Research Fellow at the conclusion of his fellowship. This recognizes the value of Dr. Alam’s collaboration and the positive contribution he made to the partnership. It also formalizes his ties with GRIDD and Griffith University and will enable him to continue to have free-of-charge access to the University’s extensive library resources. It further provides Dr. Alam with the opportunity to serve as an associate supervisor of doctoral students.

Leveraging resources and facilities

During his fellowship, Dr, Alam was able to access GRIDD’s NatureBank, a unique drug discovery platform based on natural product extracts and fractions derived from Australian plants, fungi, and marine invertebrates. NatureBank’s samples are divided into two libraries, one comprising 10,000 natural product extracts, and another made up of 50,000 natural product fractions. NatureBank also holds some 30,000 archived biodata samples. Its stock of samples may be used to screen for any disease and can accelerate drug discovery. NatureBank is an active player in WIPO Re:Search, to date having furnished samples for two of the program’s collaborative R&D efforts involving neglected tropical diseases.

Dr. Alam explores GRIDD’s NatureBank, which is listed in the
WIPO Re:Search database of partner resources. NatureBank is a
unique drug discovery platform comprising some 30,000 archived
biodata samples, which can be used to help accelerate drug
discovery (photo: Courtesy of Dr. Mohammad Shafiul Alam).

“It was a pleasure for our team to work with Dr. Alam and to guide him around our state-of-the-art infrastructure and processes. Having him embedded at GRIDD for several months gave us an opportunity to find translatable commonalities to aid him in his research,” comments Associate Professor Rohan Davis, NatureBank’s academic lead. 

Access to NatureBank provided a perfect opportunity for Dr. Alam to select species of interest based on his own preliminary findings in Bangladesh. It also enabled him to expand his knowledge of different approaches for the discovery and development of anti-plasmodial compounds from those natural products.

“The fellowship provided an excellent opportunity for me to learn new skills, technical insights and expertise to continue important research on anti-malarial development from the natural products in an area where it is needed most,” notes Dr. Alam.

Highlighting the role of IP to researchers

The fellowship proved yet another opportunity to demonstrate the role that intellectual property (IP) rights can play in supporting effective research collaborations, particularly in relation to the sharing of resources. Strategic use of IP rights to leverage the value of research outputs can be an effective way to secure funding for future research projects.

On the strength of our experience in hosting Dr. Alam, and recognizing the challenges that can sometimes confront cross-border collaborations, we have signed a material transfer agreement with his host institute in Bangladesh. This arrangement allows the flow of materials to Dr. Alam’s institute and thereby strengthens our common efforts to support breakthroughs in malaria research.

The strong relationship developed between GRIDD and Dr. Alam during his visit has paved the way for another WIPO Re:Search fellow to be hosted at GRIDD under the same program. Dr. Hamisi Masanjia Malebo, a Research Leader from the National Institute for Medical Research in Tanzania, will join GRIDD’s Associate Professor Yun Feng for a six-month fellowship in January 2019. Dr. Malebo will work on Tanzanian traditional medicines used as anti-infectives and will focus on isolation and characterization of active agents from herbal extracts.

Such international collaborations are mutually enriching for all parties involved. GRIDD Director Professor Jenny Martin strongly supports these international linkages. “Our mission at GRIDD is to ‘create knowledge that transforms lives’. That includes using our know-how and expertise to improve the skills of researchers from all over the world and to give them access to our unique resources and infrastructure,” she explains. “It is very rewarding for us to participate in the important WIPO Re:Search initiative by hosting these fellows at GRIDD and to work with them to develop new knowledge and drug leads for major human diseases like malaria.”

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