30/05/2014 06:02 BST | Updated 27/07/2014 06:59 BST

Generation NCD: Searching For the Scientists to Tackle Africa's Next Healthcare Challenge

Africa and its healthcare needs are changing. As its economic landscape shifts, burgeoning wealth co-exists with extreme poverty. While infectious diseases like malaria and HIV still place huge pressure on Africa, non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as cancer and diabetes pose an increasing threat.

Partnerships that pool resources of businesses, NGOs and other organisations - like the London Declaration on Neglected Tropical Diseases - are helping to mitigate the pressure from some infectious illnesses. If we are to address emerging healthcare threats, a similarly collaborative approach is now needed to target NCDs.

Healthcare companies like GSK have an important role to play: we can put our scientists to work analysing these diseases and searching for new solutions. But we have the potential to devise more effective, targeted and appropriate treatments if we join forces with others - particularly those scientists working on the African continent who are closest to the challenge.

By working with scientists in Africa, we might begin to understand why NCDs can behave in different ways there. For instance, why do more aggressive breast cancers seemingly affect more young women in the region? Are there genetic or environmental reasons that might explain this? Innovation generated within Africa for Africa is far more likely to result in sustainable solutions that understand the continent's nuances and meet patients' needs.

But to generate this innovation, to develop solutions for managing current and future healthcare challenges, Africa will need a strong local research base.

There are pockets of fantastic science already in place across Africa. The question is how do we support these scientists, capitalise on this talent and make sure it thrives in the long term. Partnership will again be crucial here. Through academia working with industry, we can locate talented scientists; support their professional development; ensure they have the resources to pursue their research and translate it into treatments for patients.

So how do we make this happen? At GSK we have already taken steps to support scientific capability across Africa. Our malaria vaccine candidate is being developed in conjunction with research partners at 11 centres in seven African countries. This has played a vital role in building capacity for managing large-scale clinical trials that will endure long beyond this particular trial.

Also, through our Trust in Science programme, we are helping to build a long-term scientific research base in Africa. This initiative is committed to seeking out the best scientific ideas - from both young and established researchers - and funding their development. It focuses on supporting research that can rapidly translate into an improvement in the lives of patients and is related to locally relevant medical needs.

Now, we are going one step further. As part of a series of investments to support sustainable growth in Africa, we're creating the world's first R&D Open Lab for NCDs in Africa. This builds on our successful open lab at Tres Cantos in Spain, where scientists from different organisations can come and use GSK's state of the art facilities to research diseases of the developing world. Such an approach turns the usual model of closely guarded R&D on its head. A similarly radical model is needed to address NCDs in Africa.

From its hub at our research and development site at Stevenage in the UK, the new lab will work in multiple partnerships, including with local African labs. It will see GSK scientists collaborate with academic and scientific centres across Africa to conduct research to help unlock the factors behind the variations seen in NCDs in Africa. It is hoped these insights will inform prevention strategies and enable the development of new medicines to address the specific needs of African patients.

Moreover, it will directly support the training and education of African scientific researchers, building local expertise and creating a new generation of African NCD experts. In addition to supporting R&D talent, we want to build manufacturing capacity in Africa, helping bring production of medicines closer to the patient.

These developments are exciting - and we hope more businesses will follow suit. If economic growth in Africa is to be inclusive and sustainable, there is a need - as this month's African Economic Outlook from the African Development Bank pointed out - to invest in building skills and creating jobs.

With current projections indicating that by 2020 the largest increases in NCD deaths will occur in Africa, time is of the essence. Industry and its partners need to pull together to help equip Africa's scientists to generate new solutions for patients both now and in the future.