New Generation of Non-Profit Initiatives Tackles World's "Neglected" Diseases

By Mandelbaum-Schmid, Judith | Bulletin of the World Health Organization, May 2004 | Go to article overview

New Generation of Non-Profit Initiatives Tackles World's "Neglected" Diseases


Mandelbaum-Schmid, Judith, Bulletin of the World Health Organization


A new generation of non-profit drug companies and public-private partnerships is taking on the challenge of developing drugs and vaccines against diseases plaguing developing countries and traditionally ignored by the pharmaceutical industry because they lack profit potential.

Buying up the rights to develop and market drugs for "neglected" diseases from the drug companies who own them but have yet to develop them are a growing number of initiatives such as the US-based non-profit drug company One World Health and US based nonprofit organization, the Aeras Global TB Vaccine Foundation.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced on 12 February 2004 a US$ 82.9 million grant to the Aeras Global TB Vaccine Foundation to support the development of new vaccines to prevent tuberculosis (TB) which causes nearly two million deaths every year, the majority of which occur in developing countries. The grant, the largest ever for TB vaccine development, will allow Aeras to fund human trials of promising TB vaccines and early research on the next generation of vaccines.

Similarly, One World Health, received US$ 10 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to test a promising new treatment for leishmaniasis (kala azar). It is estimated that sound 350 million people in 88 countries are at risk of contracting this often-lethal disease bur 90% of cases are concentrated in India, Bangladesh, Brazil, Nepal and Sudan, according to WHO. Some 1.5-2 million new cases occur annually.

The pharmaceutical industry has responded with its own initiatives. The development of drugs against malaria, a disease which kills almost a million people every year--mostly in Africa--has benefited from a recent agreement between Chongqing Holley Holding, a Chinese pharmaceutical company, Sigma-Tau, an Italian pharmaceutical company, Medicines for Malaria Venture, a non-profit organization and the University of Oxford. On 19 March, they signed an agreement for the international development of the anti-malarial drug, Dihydroartemisinin-piperaquine (Artekin). Unlike the conventional chloroquine and sulfadoxine-pyrimethamine treatments, artemisinin, from which the drug is derived, has not yet produced any known cases of resistance.

"Not only should this antimalarial be effective," said Dr Christopher Hentschel, CEO of Medicines for Malaria Venture, "our goal is also to be able to make it available al a cost that's affordable for people living on less than a dollar a day."

The US-based firm, Johnson & Johnson, announced on 30 March 2004 that it has granted royalty-free rights to the International Partnership for Microbicides for a vaginal medication to prevent HIV infection in women originally developed by the firm's subsidiary, Tibotec Pharmaceuticals. The partnership, also based in the US, will conduct the remaining trials of the drug, known as TMC-120, in order to gain regulatory approval. If the trials are successful the product could be on the market by 2010. Research into microbicides has previously been held up by a lack of resources and the absence of interest in the pharmaceutical industry. (See related news article, Microbicides preventing HIV infection could be available by 2010, in this issue of the Bulletin (2004;82:393).

These examples are indicative of a growing trend in which non-profit entities, governments, international organizations and pharmaceutical/biotech firms are partnering to develop drugs or vaccines and make them accessible to needy countries.

"Public-private partnerships are not new--they starred in the 1970s and built strength through the 1990s. But a few things have happened in the past few years. They've become consolidated and accepted, and they've scaled up considerably," said Robert Ridley, ad interim Director of the UNICEF/ UNDP/World Bank/WHO Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases (TDR) in Geneva.

There are nearly one hundred such partnerships, according to the Initiative on Public-Private Partnerships for Health at the Global Forum for Health Research, a non-profit group based in Geneva whose mission is to track such arrangements and help them perform more effectively. …

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