Professor Paul Watts
Primary discipline: Chemical Science
Relevance of research
Within InnoVenton at Nelson Mandela University Professor Watts will further develop the continuous flow methodology to investigate how small production platforms can enhance chemical manufacture within the South African economy. In addition, research will be undertaken to investigate the integration of synthesis and purification within continuous flow systems.
Biosketch of incumbent
Professor Watts graduated from the University of Bristol (UK) in 1995 with a first-class BSc in Chemistry. He continued his studies at Bristol, obtaining a PhD in bio-organic natural product chemistry in 1999. His PhD focussed on the synthesis of isotopically labelled compounds for use in determining biosynthetic pathways to polyketide-derived natural products. He subsequently worked at the University of Hull (UK) where he led the micro reactor and continuous flow technology group, being promoted to full professor in August 2011. He has published nearly 100 papers in the field and regularly gives lectures on the topic at worldwide conferences. He is on several editorial boards and is an associate editor of the Journal of Flow Chemistry.
Current research interests
Research interests include:
Improving organic synthesis utilising new technology;
Catalysis (and biocatalysis) in continuous flow reactors;
Process analytical technology; and
2019 - 2020
Coronavirus Highlights Need to Manufacture our Own Drugs
The current coronavirus pandemic has once again highlighted the need for South Africa to manufacture its own life-saving drugs.
The global response to the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the weaknesses in the supply chains for vital medicines and their components. Much of the world’s supply of raw materials for drug manufacture comes from China, the country first massively affected by the pandemic. As a result many drug ingredient makers in China remain shut or have reduced their output, cutting at the foundations of worldwide pharmaceutical supplies.
Fortunately, South African government policy has, for some time, encouraged the development of generic replacements for imported pharmaceuticals, a challenge taken up by Professor Paul Watts, SARChI Chair in Microfluidic Bio-Chemical Processing at Nelson Mandela University, and his team.
“We have done a huge amount of research into new ways of manufacturing generic life-saving medications in South Africa, specifically for AIDS, TB, malaria, cancer, diabetes and influenza,” says Prof Watts.
“However, none of the active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) for HIV, TB and malaria medications are currently made locally, which makes them incredibly expensive, and, with the advent of the coronavirus there is expected to be a significant decrease in supply.
“Surely this is a clear indicator that we must start to manufacture quality products in Africa, for Africa, at a lower cost,” says Prof Watts, who has a doctorate in bio-organic natural product chemistry.
It has taken him and his team 20 years to develop the necessary technology to enable the manufacture of the APIs in South Africa, and also to make them 20% to 30% cheaper.
In any tablet, whether an aspirin or ARV medication, about 70% of the cost is the drug substance – the API – which is the principal component. The other 30% is for the excipients, the substances that help deliver the medication to your system.
Over the past 10 years, South Africa has spent around R120-billion buying in APIs from India, and even more on purchasing from China. Add to this the cost of formulating these APIs into tablets, and you get some idea of the total cost. And because of these costs, there’s simply not enough to meet the huge demand for medications.
The local manufacture of key generic drugs for major diseases in South Africa and Africa could ensure that more people have access to the drugs, it could save billions, create jobs and establish a new manufacturing industry. Local manufacture would also mean the quality of the APIs is assured, which is currently not the case in all countries in Africa.
Prof Watts explains they have got to the point where, for example, three different AIDS drugs have been manufactured at lab scale on campus and they are now pursuing intellectual property protection in South Africa and other major pharmaceutical manufacturing nations. Several of the patents have already been registered.
“These are known generic drugs, we have not developed a new drug; we have developed a new way of more efficiently manufacturing the drug,” explains Prof Watts. “We can also manufacture drugs under patent, but we would need a licence for the patent – this would not be cheap, hence our initial focus is on generic drugs not under patent.”
The microfluidic bio-chemical flow process or “flow chemistry” used to create the drugs starts with a microreactor about the size of a mobile phone. Built into the microreactor are a series of channels that the chemicals pass through. The National Research Foundation National Equipment Programme contributed R2.2-million for the flow reactor required to create the drugs. This represents two-thirds of the funding necessary, with Nelson Mandela University contributing the remaining third.
The University is developing partnerships with South African companies with the aim of establishing the manufacturing plant and is currently awaiting approval for further funding from government. All the equipment would come from Europe and be approved for drug manufacturing purposes. “We’d probably have one centre in South Africa where the drugs would be manufactured, and it would make sense for it to be near a port for export and procurement of raw materials,” says Prof Watts.
Despite all protocols being met, there are endless delays over the funding, which is highly frustrating for the researchers. But perhaps the coronavirus crisis will persuade government or industry to urgently invest in drug manufacturing on home soil. Prof Watts concludes, “We are so close to doing something big here. We will keep on with it until it happens.”
The KiloFlow flow reactor required to create the drugs.
2018 - 2019
Life saving drugs manufactured in South Africa
The local production of key generic drugs for major diseases in South Africa and Africa could save billions, while establishing a new manufacturing industry and creating jobs are ready to manufacture life-saving medications in South Africa, specifically generic AIDS, TB and malaria drugs. None of the advanced pharmaceutical intermediates (APIs) or drug substances are made locally, which makes them incredibly expensive,” says Professor Paul Watts, holder of the SARChI Chair in Microfluidic Bio/Chemical Processing.
He explains that over the past 10 years South Africa has spent in the region of R120-billion buying in AIDS, TB and Malaria APIs from India, and a significant amount will also have been spent in China. Added to this the cost of making the tablets, which is done by local pharmaceutical companies. He adds that a recent media report suggests that because of the costs, one in five AIDS patients in South Africa goes without this life-saving medication because there’s simply not enough to meet the huge demand. The quality of the APIs is also not assured.
“For this reason, the biggest project for the Chair is the local production of quality drugs, as the morbidity and mortality from these diseases is far more devastating in Africa than elsewhere,” says Prof Watts, who strongly believes that scientists should conduct research that positively influences society. Prof Watts, who has a doctorate in bio-organic natural product chemistry, started this research in 2000 at Hull University in the UK and continues to collaborate with researchers in the UK and US.
The Chair includes a group of approximately 30 researchers who are working on developing better chemical routes for the different medicinal targets and on developing cheaper ways of making quality drugs for life-threatening diseases in South Africa.
“In any tablet, from a headache tablet to a tablet for HIV, about 70% is the API or drug substance,” Prof Watts explains. “Using new technology, we can make the APIs 20 to 30 per cent cheaper in South Africa. More people would therefore have access to them, and it would be creating an industry and jobs.”
The Chair started this project in 2013 and it has reached the point where three different AIDS drugs (Lamivudine, Emtricitabine and Efavirenz) have been manufactured at the research lab level on campus and are now in the international patent protection processing stage, which takes two to three years.
“These are known drugs, we have not developed a new drug; we have developed a new way of manufacturing the drug. We can also manufacture drugs under patent, but we would need a licence for the patent – this would not be cheap, hence our initial focus is on generic drugs not under patent,” says Prof Watts.
The university has partnered with local companies with the aim of establishing a manufacturing plant and is currently awaiting approval from government for further funding. All the equipment would come from the UK and the Netherlands and be approved for drug manufacturing purposes. “We’d probably have one centre in South Africa where the drugs would be manufactured, and it would make sense for it to be near a port for export.”
Despite all protocols being met, there are endless delays over the funding, which is highly frustrating for the researchers and raises questions about why the government would pay out so much for the APIs but hesitate to invest in manufacturing them on home soil. “We are so close to doing something big here,” says Prof Watts. “We are so close to pushing it over the line and so we will keep on with it until it happens.”