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05/10/2018

Over the past 10 years, South Africa’s health sector has spent R120-billion importing Advanced Pharmaceutical Intermediates (APIs), which are essentially the ingredients needed to make generic medicines to treat HIV/AIDS and other diseases.

And, yet, one in five HIV/AIDS patients in South Africa goes without this life-saving medication because there’s simply not enough to go around to meet the country’s huge demand for it. 

To address this critical shortfall in HIV/AIDS and other medication – and save the country billions of rands – Nelson Mandela University’s Prof Paul Watts, who holds a chair in microfluidic bio-chemical processing through the South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI), has researched and developed the technology needed to locally manufacture the APIs.

The university has partnered with Johannesburg pharmaceutical manufacturer Specpharm and its subsidiary Inicio, with the aim of establishing a large commercial manufacturing plant and is currently awaiting approval from government for R3-billion of Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) funding.

“We’re looking specifically at generic AIDS, TB and malaria medication. None of the APIs for these medications are made locally, which also makes these drugs incredibly expensive,” said Prof Watts, who has been awarded the university’s prestigious Innovation Excellence Award for his work.

Prof Watts was one of numerous Nelson Mandela University academics who were recently lauded for their work in their respective fields at the annual Research, Teaching and Engagement Awards. 

He said newer medication, still under patent, was not available in South Africa for these diseases, as it was too expensive to import.

“South Africa’s pharmaceutical industry formulates generic drugs, whose 15-year patent has expired. They are still perfectly good drugs.”

Once the new manufacturing plant goes ahead, Prof Watts said it would create a new industry in the country, along with new jobs. It would also boost the economy and bring the cost of drugs down.

“Our hope is that more patients would be treated for less money,” said Prof Watts, who uses continuous flow reactors to mix the chemicals for the APIs.

The flow-reactor is essentially one long glass tube, bent like a sidewinder snake, which allows scientists to pump in materials and reagents (reaction mixtures) at different points along the way, enabling numerous chemical reactions to occur in parallel, with the final product emerging at the end.

Called flow chemistry, it is a smaller, greener, cheaper and safer conveyer-belt approach to chemical processing. It allows researchers to conduct as many as 200 experiments daily on a minute scale and stop them in process if necessary, compared to traditional batch processing, where researchers can only complete one or two costly experiments per day, on a much larger scale, with much higher risks should things go wrong.

“Once funding for the commercial facility is approved, we will be able to transfer the flow technology onto a much larger scale,” said Prof Watts, who has a B1 research rating from the National Research Foundation.

“Even a tiny flow-reactor [which he can hold in his hand] can produce 10kg a day.”

Prof Watts, who is from the United Kingdom, collaborates widely with other researchers in his field in Europe and the United States. He obtained his doctorate in bio-organic natural product chemistry at Bristol University, and led the micro reactor and continuous flow technology group at Hull University.

Contact information
Prof Paul Watts
Research Chair in Microfluidic Bio/Chemical Processing
Tel: +27 41 504 3694
Paul.Watts@mandela.ac.za