By Alexis Akwagyiram

KIGALI, Rwanda — South African biotech company Afrigen is collaborating with a Nobel Prize-winning scientist to develop groundbreaking gene therapy treatments that target diseases that have plagued Africa for decades.

The Cape Town-based company is working with the University of Pennsylvania’s Drew Weissman, who won a Nobel Prize for developing mRNA vaccines used to fight COVID-19.

“My people are in his labs working with some of his top scientists on mRNA. And, of course, we are extremely interested to further collaborate,” Afrigen CEO Petro Terblanche told Semafor Africa. She said the company is exploring “opportunities to bring gene therapy to Africa” through its ties with scientists at the University of Pennsylvania.

Gene therapy refers to forms of treatment that add a new gene or repair a mutated one inside the human body.

Afrigen’s model involves developing the technology and expertise to create vaccines and therapeutic drugs which it then shares with partner manufacturers.

Terblanche, speaking to Semafor Africa on the sidelines of the Africa CEO Forum in Kigali, said the company shared information with 15 partners — made up of vaccine manufacturers and research institutions — in South Africa, Senegal, Nigeria, Kenya, Tunisia, and Egypt.

Afrigen is developing a new generation of mRNA vaccines for a range of diseases including HIV, tuberculosis (TB), Rift Valley fever, and gonorrhea, she said.