With an almost unparalleled richness in biodiversity and natural resources, and perhaps the greatest degree of human diversity on the planet, South Africa has the potential to become a major global economy and also to contribute significantly to the wellbeing of others in many parts of the world. Yet according to the World Economic Forum’s 2012-2013 Global Competitiveness Index (GCI), South Africa is ranked 52nd out of 144 countries. One of the major reasons is a life expectancy at birth of 52.1 years, which places South Africa at position 133 (out of 144) in this category. This low life expectancy is the consequence of a high burden of disease, to which both communicable and non-communicable diseases are major contributors.
What can be done to alleviate this burden of disease? The answer to this question is complex, and involves patients, the government, academia, and the private sector in many areas including policy, education, and changes in lifestyle. With regard to academia and research in general, the GCI ranking places South Africa at position 34 (out of 144) with regard to the quality of scientific research institutions and at position 20 with regard to intellectual property protection. What then is needed to translate the country’s economic potential and existing resources into tangible solutions for the current burden of disease? Although multifaceted, improvement in health would be a major contributor.
The University of Pretoria has established itself as a leading research-intensive institution on the African continent. Within the University, the Institute for Cellular and Molecular Medicine (ICMM) aims to address several of the critical elements contributing to the disease burden by promoting collaborative research that is multidisciplinary, interdepartmental and interfaculty in nature. The Institute currently comprises 20 research groups in seven of the nine Faculties. Strong links also exist between groups within the ICMM and national and international partners and collaborators.
Several groups in the ICMM have recently been successful in obtaining highly competitive and prestigious funding awards, including the Medical Research Council’s South African Flagship Research Projects Award (to Prof MS Pepper) and the National Research Foundation’s Infrastructure Funding Instruments Awards (to Prof E Pretorius and Prof MS Pepper).
The ICMM is now set to make a major contribution to the alleviation of the high disease burden in South Africa, and also to add to global efforts to reduce morbidity and mortality and the impact that they have on all facets of our lives.
Prof. Michael S. Pepper