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Biomedical discovery science as a catalyst for global health and sustainable development

Fabiano Santos

Fabiano Santos

Especialista Principal de Programas del IDRC

Discovery science has been instrumental in advancing our comprehension of the natural world and providing the basis for new technologies in diverse fields of science, including biomedicine and global health. Compelling illustrations of the utility of biomedical discovery science for global health are the recent accelerated development of vaccines and interventions to counter emergent infections that pose significant threats to global health security. The global demand for urgent vaccines underscores the centrality of biomedical science to address neglected and emerging diseases, while fostering scientific collaboration during urgent health crises and promoting the UN Sustainable Development Goals. 

Often overlooked in global health, discovery science investigators and global health research collaborations can contribute to breaking the cycle of poverty and disease in many corners of the world. Their type of research can be instrumental to a more equitable world where health disparities are minimized and vulnerable populations have access to effective medical interventions. This collaborative endeavour not only expedites scientific discovery but also facilitates the translation of these findings into transformative solutions for global health. We don’t have to look further than the discovery of antiretroviral drug treatments for HIV and the development of new vaccine candidates for malaria prevention. Both would not have been possible without the joint efforts of global networks of discovery and public health scientists working to ensure the success of these interventions from the bench to patients’ bedsides.

Why re-focus on biomedical discovery science in global health?

Despite the importance of biomedical discovery science, a concerning trend is its declining emphasis in the field of global health. Biomedical science lays the groundwork for applied research and innovation by providing a deep understanding of the fundamental principles underlying diseases. Investing in discovery science can therefore address development inequity by uncovering the root causes of diseases. However, the pursuit of faster impact and tangible results has led to a shift toward more translational and applied research, sidelining biomedical discovery science. 

As the products of biomedical innovation become more expensive and the returns on investment in research and development to the biotechnology industry have fallen for some products (such as new antibiotics), challenges arise in ensuring equitable access to needed health interventions, especially in low- and middle-income countries. This emphasizes the importance of forming new alliances and partnerships to strengthen discovery research capacity in the Global South and ensure sustainable investments in global health. Just as pandemics have shown that viruses know no borders, the funding landscape needs to adapt. Navigating the delicate balance between public funding, private investment and product affordability is crucial for moving closer to achieving a healthier and more equitable future for all. 

Not considering the full potential of discovery science for development poses a threat to the long-term sustainability of global health solutions. The development of effective treatments and interventions against diseases that disproportionately impact the world’s poorest and most vulnerable stands on the shoulders of many years of biomedical science research. Without this fundamental investment, a comprehensive understanding of biological and molecular mechanisms of prevention and treatment will be hindered. Maintaining a balance between discovery and applied research is crucial for ensuring a sustainable approach to global health challenges.

Health care worker in blue gown and white mask
World Bank
Global health emergencies underscore the need for effective partnerships promoting discovery science and global health research.

Investing in biomedical discovery science for development

Aligned with our strategic commitment to invest in high-quality research and innovation and mobilize alliances, IDRC has been supporting research projects on the frontiers of biomedical science and global health through the Joint Canada-Israel Health Research Program since 2015. The program is a partnership between government and philanthropic organizations involving the Centre, the Azrieli Foundation, the Canadian Institutes for Health Research and the Israel Science Foundation, which jointly invested CAD55 million in the two phases of the program. Projects supported integrate research teams from Canada, Israel and low- and middle-income countries with the intention of strengthening scientific capacity, fostering discoveries in health as well as promoting international collaboration and scientific excellence in all its diversity.

Phase I of the program (2015-2023) supported 30 research projects selected through five competitive calls in the areas of neuroscience, neurobiology, immunology, cancer and metabolism. Projects were evaluated by a panel of international experts chaired by renowned scientists such as Dr. Bruce Beutler, who holds the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Collectively, these projects involved more than 100 individuals, including senior and early-career scientists, graduate students and trainees from 15 countries. Findings from some of these projects helped to generate evidence for health interventions and innovations to be tested in future clinical trials. For example, a neurobiology project based in Nepal explored new neuroplasticity concepts while developing training protocols for people who have lost part of their sight to cortical blindness.​ The project allowed the Tilganga Institute of Ophthalmology in Kathmandu to establish, for the first time since its foundation, a laboratory to carry out research on fundamental neuroscience concepts with potential clinical applications, especially for children with blindness.

Some projects expanded the knowledge of how sex and gender differences can impact disease expression. In one project, Turkish, Canadian and Israeli investigators demonstrated that diet influences how liver cancer develops very differently in male and female humanized mouse models. This research may have implications for how we treat these diseases in men versus women in the future. Another project involving Chilean, Canadian and Israeli researchers showed that antibiotic exposure during weaning leads to reduced social interaction in adulthood — these behavioural changes were only observed in male mice and may have been caused by alterations in the gut microbiota induced by antibiotics, paving the way for future studies on the unsuspected effects of antibiotic exposure and microbiome alterations on neurodevelopment in early life.

Gloved hands in lab setting, testing on a white mouse.
Humanized mouse models allow scientists to investigate diseases and predict human responses to new treatments.

Phase II of the program (2023-2027) is currently supporting 11 projects in the broad area of infectious and chronic diseases. In collaboration with their counterparts in Canada and Israel, over the next five years, research teams based in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Ghana, Sudan, Türkiye and Nigeria will generate scientific evidence for the development of new targets for prevention, diagnosis, drug development and treatment of infectious and chronic diseases as well as tools for pandemic preparedness and response.

The bottom line

Global health challenges will continue to threaten the international community, especially the most vulnerable populations in low- and middle-income countries. It is imperative that we recognize the potential of biomedical discovery science as a catalyst for and companion to more downstream global health research for positive change and commit to its continued growth in the service of humanity.