Nuclear Medicine Research Infrastructure (NuMeRI) is a world-first for cancer and TB drug development and clinical research in South Africa

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South Africa's investment in advancing nuclear medicine research to address critical health challenges, including various cancers and TB, has been boosted with the official opening of Nuclear Medicine Research Infrastructure (NuMeRI) on Tuesday, 21 May.  

Unveiled by the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande, Gauteng Premier Mr Panyaza Lesufi, the University of Pretoria (UP) and other stakeholders, NuMeRI is Africa's first nuclear medicine research and development facility. 

Situated next to the Steve Biko Academic Hospital in Pretoria, NuMeRI is set to advance drug development and clinical research and provide cutting-edge diagnostics and treatment in relation to cancer, TB and other major diseases that are burdening public health.  

The UP Health Faculty, as well as iThemba LABS and the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (Necsa) are major partners in this initiative, which has also received praise from the global community. 

Speaking at the launch, Minister Nzimande explained that: "NuMeRI is a one-stop-shop medical imaging facility dedicated to drug development and imaging-based clinical research." 

It is one of the 13 research infrastructures facilities established by the Department of Science and Innovation under the South African Research Infrastructure Roadmap. The Department invested R85 million towards the establishment of NuMeRi.  

"NuMeRI's capabilities will contribute to the precision medicine approach and targeted personalised therapies being developed in South Africa.  The facility is another key milestone in advancing South Africa's Bio-economy Strategy and will assist in taking bio-innovations further down the value chain, from radiolabelling to preclinical testing.  It will also contribute to good manufacturing practices and with clinical trials," said Dr Nzimande.  

He added that NuMeRI will enhance South Africa's research in medicinal chemistry, which will expedite the development of drugs to address national priority diseases such as cancer and TB.  "This will enable new pharmaceuticals to reach market sooner and give South African pharmaceutical development a competitive edge with global equivalents." 

Another important aspect is the development of high-level human resources in nuclear medicine.  According to the Minister, this infrastructure is expected to triple the current number of clinical PhD degrees and increase six-fold basic science PhD degrees in South Africa.  To date, 20 master's and 15 PhD students have completed their studies, with a further 17 master's and 22 PhD students currently completing their studies.   

Speaking at the launch, which was also attended by other government as well and local and international academic and industry partners, the Interim Vice-Chancellor and Principal of UP, Prof. Themba Mosia, said: "At the University of Pretoria we pride ourselves on being future-focused, making sure that the programmes we offer equip our students for the workplace, needs and environments of the future, and that our society and communities in South Africa, Africa and internationally benefit from our research, development and innovation. 

"This is precisely what the magnificent NuMeRI facility represents.  It is the first of its kind on the continent and a flagship of the use of nuclear for good." 

Prof. Mosia commended Prof. Mike Sathekge, the CEO and President of NuMeRI, and his team on acquiring the most advanced medical imaging equipment available. 

"Prof Sathekge's nuclear medicine team is dedicated to novel drug development and clinical research and leads in cancer diagnostics and treatment, as well as in TB," Prof. Mosia explained.  

Nuclear medicine uses small amounts of radioactive material combined with a carrier molecule in the body to see how organs or tissue are functioning to diagnose diseases more easily.  It then selectively targets and treats the diseased area in the body with molecular precision, sparing healthy adjacent cells. 

Prof. Sathekge emphasised the importance of accurate imaging and assessment in curbing cases of misdiagnoses and cancer-related fatalities, calling the lack of access to these facilities in low-income countries "scandalous".  

"That is what NuMeRi wants to change.  If you have such wide disparities and high numbers of people in low-income countries who can't access this technology, you'll forever misdiagnose patients and you won't be able to potentially save millions of lives," he said.  

On behalf of the Department of Science and Innovation, Necsa incubated NuMeRI from 2016 to 2019.   

"We believe that Necsa has demonstrated its capability in handling projects of this magnitude and we are happy that South African citizens will benefit from this nuclear medicine research facility," said Necsa Group CEO, Mr Loyiso Tyabashe. 

Dr Lehlohonolo Majake, CEO of the Steve Biko Academic Hospital, reiterated the importance of early detection when it comes to cancer treatment.  "By finding diseases early we can intervene in the early stages and significantly improve treatment outcomes and save lives. 

"The possibilities that NuMeRi presents are endless, offering hope to patients and medical professionals alike.  The Steve Biko Academic Hospital leadership is honoured and proud to have provided the site for NuMeRi, not only for our patients but to the community at large," she said.  

As South Africa celebrates 30 years of freedom this year, NuMeRI stands out as one of the significant developments of the democratic dispensation as the democratic develops nuclear energy for peaceful endeavours. 

This article was first published on 22 May by South Africa Department of Science and Innovation.

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