As an extension of its many interventions to strengthen the country’s health systems and its response to the disease burden and pandemics such as COVID-19, the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) has introduced four new Extramural Research Units (ERUs).
The four new research units: SAMRC/UCT Intersection of Noncommunicable Disease and Infectious Diseases; SAMRC/UNIVEN Antimicrobial Resistance and Global Health; SAMRC/UCT Platform for Pharmacogenomics and the SAMRC/UJ Pan African Centre for Epidemics were launched in Johannesburg on Monday, 22 August 2022.
In line with the organisation’s undertaking to government to continuously align its work with national transformation targets and strategies, all four research units will be led by Black African researchers, who have over the years, made outstanding scientific contributions to advancing science and building the knowledge base in their respective disciplines. In addition, this aligned to the SAMRC’s long-term goal of increasing support for underrepresented scientists engaged in health research and is also a reiteration of the organisation’s commitment to contributing to, and transforming the country’s scientific landscape and its knowledge economy while maintaining world class standards and a competitive position.
Setting the tone in her welcome address, SAMRC President and CEO, Prof Glenda Gray said the organisation understands that research and development (R&D) is one of a range of activities that can generate innovations, or through which useful knowledge for innovation can be acquired. “However, for us to be able to harness these potentials, as an organisation, the SAMRC constantly re-evaluates its work and what needs to be done for the betterment of the lives of South Africans – the addition of these new extramural research units speaks to that,” said Gray. She also highlighted that the introduction if these units could not have come at a more appropriate time given the health challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. “But the one big lesson that the pandemic has taught us is that investments in science and innovation capacities are essential to respond to and build resilience during socio-economic and health crises.”
In his keynote address, Prof Kelly Chibale from UCT who is also a director of one of the existing SAMRC’s existing extramural research unit, the Drug Discovery and Development Research Unit, unpacked the role of SAMRC extramural research units in conducting, empowering and promoting research in South Africa: 2022 and beyond. Prof Chibale also weighed in on some of the lessons learnt from COVID-19 pandemic. Citing the importance of fostering and incentivizing innovation and entrepreneurship, Chibale said the benefits are unquantifiable as they include job creation and intellectual property. He also highlighted the role of skills development and capacity strengthening in nurturing young talent – a resource which he says will only grow due to the large youth population and increased training capacity. On the importance of research and funding partnerships, he advised the new Unit Directors to share risks to share benefits, adding that “an opportunity to highlight how partnership to advance innovative medicines discovery in Africa is an opportunity to global pandemic preparedness.”
Presiding virtually over the official launch was Deputy Minister of Health, Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo who congratulated the new Unit Directors, saying that they now join a group of distinguished past and present SAMRC Unit Directors who have made seminal contributions to improving the quality of life of all South Africans.
Deputy Minister also reminded them that their role is firstly to establish key enabling platforms to facilitate the generation of new knowledge through world-class applied research; and secondly, to train and mentor a new generation of high-quality postgraduate students and postdoctoral fellows in multi-disciplinary research, and in so doing, equip them to compete in the science and education sectors nationally and internationally. “You also have a responsibility to increase the body of scientific knowledge through research translation into products, patents, research papers, policy, practice and health promotion including to the general public; and lastly to increase the number of health-care innovations and to produce patents and health products based on new discoveries and new research,” emphasized the Deputy Minister.
In the end, he commended the SAMRC for continuing to fulfil its mandate of funding and conducting excellent research, and importantly delivering high impact health interventions to support the Department of Health in its endeavour to create a healthier life for all.
In responding to the pandemic, another wake-up call was the need to improve the understanding of current pandemics through cutting-edge Pan African and global research, epidemiological, and public health studies among marginalized populations in diverse low-resource settings in South Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa and globally. This would be the focus of Professor Refilwe Nancy Phaswana-Mafuya’s Unit, the Pan African Centre for Epidemics Research Unit.
Led by Professor Pascal Bessong, the Antimicrobial Resistance and Global Health Research Unit will focus on conducting research on microbial, human, and environmental determinants of the acquisition and transmission of antimicrobial resistance. They will collaborate with community and policy makers to enhance our understanding of the dynamics of antimicrobial resistance for improved antimicrobial resistance stewardship.
Professor Collet Dandara’s Platform for Pharmacogenomics Research and Translation Research Unit, will focus on identifying inherited genetic variations, epigenetic changes and microbial profiles that are associated with interindividual differences in the ways patients respond to therapeutic treatment including herbal medicine, a field commonly referred to as Pharmacogenomics.
Another key takeaway from the pandemic is the importance of enhancing our understanding and management of the interaction between endemic infections such as COVID-19, HIV, tuberculosis, etc and non-communicable diseases like heart failure, hypertension, diabetes mellitus, obesity, cancer, mental health – a priority that would lie with Professor Ntobeko Ntusi’s Intersection of Noncommunicable Disease and Infectious Diseases Research Unit.
These new additions will expand and complement the already existing 24 other extramural research units and 11 intramural research units, bringing together to a total of 39 Research Units at the SAMRC which will continue to contribute to the global archive of life-affirming knowledge.
Photo Gallery of the launch | View
Recording of the launch | View