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Using AI to Tailor Drugs for Africa

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Therapeutic drugs have long been ill suited to African patients’ needs. Professor Kelly Chibale, the director of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Holistic Drug Discovery and Development Centre (H3D), and his research colleagues posit that scientists can use artificial intelligence (AI) to change this.

Published in the 11 April 2024 edition of Nature, “AI can help to tailor drugs for Africa – but Africans should lead the way” outlines how machine learning (ML) can improve our understanding of how therapeutics might affect patients of African descent.

The research alluded to in the article has been undertaken as part of Project Africa GRADIENT (Genomic Research Approach for Diversity and Optimising Therapeutics). This initiative is aimed at understanding the variable genetics on the African continent and the impact they have on variable response to medicines in African populations.

“Today, Africa makes up 15% of the world’s population, but carries 20% of the global disease burden. Although we have this scenario, medicines haven’t historically been optimised for the African patient population.

“This is partly because there has been a very low volume of clinical trials on the continent. On average, about 3 to 4% of global clinical trials happen in Africa. This means, by implication, that the therapeutics coming out of these trials are optimised largely for people from the developed world or at least outside of Africa,” he explained.

Now, AI presents an opportunity for researchers to use the limited data they have at their disposal to build models that can effectively predict the potential outcomes of therapeutic treatments.

Within the context of the Project Africa GRADIENT initiative, H3D in collaboration with Ersilia Open Source Initiative (EOSI) have been using AI to identify genetic variants that are prevalent in Africa and likely to affect the metabolism of malaria and tuberculosis (TB) drugs.

AI has a lot of potential to accelerate medical research in Africa, but there are several barriers for the realisation of its full potential, including access to affordable power or electricity, connectivity or digital infrastructure, and data,” Chibale said.