Bulletin of the World Health Organization (BLT)

New generation of non-profit initiatives tackles world’s “neglected” diseases

29 April 2004

Photo: WHO STB
A patient with tuberculosis in Thailand covers his mouth in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease.

A new generation of non-profit drug companies and public-private partnerships are 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 One World Health, a US-based non-profit drug company and another US-based non-profit organization, the Areas Global TB Vaccine Foundation.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced on 12 February 2004 a US$ 82.9 million grant to the Aereas Global TB Vaccine Foundation to support the development of new vaccines to prevent tuberculosis 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 around 350 million people in 88 countries are at risk of contracting this often-lethal disease but 90 % of cases are concentrated in India, Bangladesh, Brazil, Nepal and Sudan, according to the World Health Organization. Some 1.5 to 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 at 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).