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Wits to lead health innovation initiative in Africa

The University of the Witwatersrand has announced that Professor Wendy Stevens, head of the department of molecular medicine and haematology and head of the National Priority Programme Unit at the National Health Laboratory Service, and her team are to lead the advancement of innovation in medical pathology laboratory systems and diagnostics with the launch of the African Innovation Laboratory Network, called iLEAD (Innovation: Laboratory Engineered Accelerated Diagnostics).

iLEAD aims to integrate laboratory systems and tackle the obstacles to Africa’s often-neglected laboratory space by stimulating new ideas and processes for diagnostics and laboratory systems specifically, but also aims to innovate across the laboratory value chain generally.

iLEAD’s network merges expertise within the fields of basic science, research and development, clinical research, implementation and translational science, marketing and business development with the aim of accelerating the introduction of novel solutions for African and global health security.

iLEAD, which was established with seed funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will leverage public-private partnerships to help drive tailored innovations towards these goals.

The iLEAD network comprises three collaborating centres in South Africa, Mozambique and Senegal. Professor Souleymane Mboup will lead the centre in Senegal and Dr Ilesh Jani, Mozambique. Stevens is responsible for the South Africa centre and the overall project. These researchers are uniquely familiar with the needs of implementation and maintenance of laboratory services in Africa at scale.

Stevens, a Wits Medical School alumna, and an expert in laboratory medicine specialising in haematology, has driven multiple innovations in pathology services. Her team of researchers established the first HIV laboratory in the National Health Laboratory Service. Most recently the team implemented the World Health Organisation-endorsed TB diagnostic test, Gene Xpert, at scale across 64 centres, making this the leading global programme for molecular implementation of gene Xpert testing globally.

“We hope that we can in addition to diagnostic and pathology services stimulate new approaches to unique patient identification, sample collection and logistics, continuous quality monitoring and connectivity. We also intended to explore big data management and a variety of innovative pathology and molecular solutions,” says Stevens.

iLEAD will establish a phased approach Innovation Pipeline to help innovators develop products from ’concept and design’ through ’clinical validation for launch readiness’. As successful innovations exit the pipeline they will be introduced to iLEAD’s network of implementing partners to drive real-world impact on patients.

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