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Building Blocks

The start-up iThemba could help lay the foundation for a biotech industry in South Africa

by Lisa M. Jarvis
September 16, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 37

Credit: Jack Kearse/Emory University
Dennis Liotta
Credit: Jack Kearse/Emory University
Dennis Liotta

Establishing a biotech industry is never as simple as training people in the art of drug discovery. In South Africa, there is a lot of good science and a swell of government support for establishing a biotech industry, but few individuals with the experience and know-how to start the first companies.

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Building Blocks

Dennis Liotta, an organic chemist at Atlanta's Emory University, is helping to lay the foundation from which an industry can grow. Liotta started iThemba Pharmaceuticals, a drug discovery firm focused on the development of medicines to treat diseases hitting Africa the hardest, such as HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria. The company will first pursue contract research work—medicinal chemistry, custom synthesis, and scale-up—to help fund its internal drug discovery efforts.

Starting a company thousands of miles from your home base isn't the easiest endeavor, but Liotta, who has invented several HIV drugs, had been worried he was accidentally creating a brain drain on the country's scientific expertise. The Emory scientist had for years brought South African postdoctoral students to his labs in Atlanta, but he realized that with few good jobs available upon their return, those well-trained chemists would leave their home country.

He started up iThemba, which means "hope" in Zulu, to help reverse that brain drain. "The idea is to have a company that hopefully will lead to other companies, that will provide employment opportunities for people in drug discovery," Liotta notes.

At the same time, iThemba would help develop new treatments for diseases often ignored by the major drug companies, which are focused on blockbuster drugs and markets. The goal is for iThemba to find compounds that are collecting dust on the shelves of pharma firms—potential drugs that have shown good efficacy against a disease that serves a market that is too small for big pharma to be interested in—and gain the rights to develop them in Africa. "Pharma has some legitimate constraints on it," Liotta notes. But if iThemba can develop drugs in South Africa, where overhead is lower and clinical trial infrastructure is solid, it could generate a modest revenue stream, while also introducing new therapies to serve areas of unmet need.

"These are small margins, but very large volumes, so I think there's still money to be made," Liotta says. "And you want companies to be able to make money because that's how they continue to innovate and find new therapies. If we can find a way for companies to be profitable by making therapies for the developing world, that's a fantastic achievement."

After several years of false starts, iThemba received $5 million in start-up funding from LifeLab and BioPad, two of South Africa's Biotechnology Regional Innovation Centres. The company's labs, located outside of Johannesburg, opened on July 1, and the first group of chemists have been hired, Liotta says. In the next year, iThemba hopes to have 14 chemists on staff.

Those scientists are starting out with some projects on hand: Emory licensed iThemba its chemical library, as well as the rights to a novel, potentially cheaper and faster process for manufacturing the HIV drug abacavir. The company also gained the right to further develop a series of prodrug inhibitors for treating latent tuberculosis that had been developed by Emory scientists.


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