We are in the middle of a “Golden Age" of tuberculosis (TB) research, both pre-clinically and clinically, that, if successful, could see the end of tuberculosis by 2030.
This is according to Dr Clifton E. Barry III, C hief of the Tuberculosis Research Section in the Laboratory of Clinical Infectious Diseases at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in the USA, who was in Stellenbosch this week for the 178th Nobel Symposium in Chemistry.
Nobel in Africa is a Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS) initiative in partnership with Stellenbosch University (SU) and is hosted under the auspices of the Nobel Foundation and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, with funding from the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation. Through the initiative, STIAS last year became the first institution outside Scandinavia to host Nobel Symposia on behalf of the Nobel Foundation since the symposium series was initiated in 1965.
This year's symposium for chemistry focused on the critical theme of “Tuberculosis and Antibiotic Resistance: From Basic Drug Discovery to Clinic" and brought together a multidisciplinary group of the world's leading scientists in fields ranging from drug design to biochemical analyses and medical applications in TB diagnosis and treatment in South Africa and Africa.
Many of these discussions took place in closed sessions, with outreach activities at TB research centres planned for after the symposium. Martin Jörnrud, First Secretary for Trade and Economic Affairs at the Embassy of Sweden, said that as the biggest pandemic after Covid-19, TB poses a significant threat to global public health and therefore requires a collaborative approach to find solutions.
Prof Sibusiso Moyo, SU Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies, said during her welcome that the aim of the Nobel in Africa Symposium was to provide an engagement platform for sharing innovative, high-level scholarship and demonstrating the vital importance of scientific research for the future of the continent and the world. As home to the youngest and fastest-growing population globally, intellectual investment in Africa was “not just logical, but imperative", she added. The Symposium also aligned with SU's vision of inclusivity and the pursuit of knowledge in service of society. “We are a university rooted in Africa but with global relevance. The Symposium opens further opportunities for collaboration and engagement, underscoring SU's global relevance and capacity for advancing thought leadership," said Moyo.
In her presentation on the incentives and barriers to the development of drugs for global health, Prof Gilla Kaplan, a former director of the Global Health Program on Tuberculosis and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Senior Advisor of Medicine Development for Global Health, said, “TB is at a point where we can succeed if we pay attention." As a neglected tropical disease (NTD), it is one of the conditions where clinical research is challenged by factors such as poor access to affected areas, lengthy and expensive drug trials, conflicting health policies and challenging logistics or lack of infrastructure, she explained.
Dr Anastasia Koch of Eh!woza, a public engagement programme, and an Honorary Lecturer at the University of Cape Town, shared insight on recent projects and documentaries that support public engagement about TB and its treatment. Prof Dissou Affolabi, of the West and Central African Regional Network for Tuberculosis Control in Benin, concluded the open session with a discussion of the need for a regional model to strengthen programmatic and research capacities on TB in West and Central Africa.
Speaking at the public lecture, SU Rector and Vice-Chancellor Prof Wim de Villiers described the symposium as a “testament to the power of collaboration" and critical in fostering inquiry and advancing knowledge. “We want to deliver research with a global resonance." SU Chancellor Justice Edwin Cameron noted that 50% of the people in South Africa who have TB also have HIV. “Seven million people in SA owe their lives to antiretrovirals, which shows that we can make things happen with public-private partnerships." He said the symposium would allow for similar opportunities in TB research.
In his lecture, Barry said, “We are standing on the verge of a second revolution of TB chemotherapy", much like the impetus seen early in the 20th century when antibiotics like streptomycin were developed. “Standard tuberculosis chemotherapy is far too lengthy to achieve the goals expressed at the second United Nations General Assembly High-Level Meeting on Tuberculosis recently. Achieving a shorter duration of treatment requires unprecedented innovation across multiple disciplines and a much more detailed understanding of human clinical disease." Barry referred to studies done in the Western Cape and China to provide a basis for understanding the pathophysiology of human disease and more rapidly identifying combination therapies that will lead to significant treatment shortening.
Moyo thanked symposium convenors, Fredrik Almqvist from Umeå University, Jacky Snoep from SU, and Maria Lerm from Linköping University for organising the event, and acknowledged the support of the National Institute for Theoretical and Computational Sciences (NITheCS), the Nobel Foundation, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation.
(from left to right) SU Chancellor Justice Edwin Cameron; Prof Sibusiso Moyo, SU Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies; Dr Clifton E. Barry III, Chief of the Tuberculosis Research Section in the Laboratory of Clinical Infectious Diseases at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in the USA; Edward Kirumira, STIAS director and SU Rector and Vice-Chancellor Prof Wim de Villiers at the 178th Nobel Symposium in Chemistry held at STIAS this week.