HEALTH: Southern Researchers Fill Gap on Neglected Diseases

  • by Stephen Leahy (cancun, mexico)
  • Inter Press Service

Now, small medical companies in emerging economies offer real hope to bring innovative and affordable treatments, a new study has found.

'Everyone thinks multinational drug companies can provide the vaccines and diagnostics for neglected tropical diseases. Our research shows that it's small biomedical companies in the developing world that are doing it,' said Peter Singer of the McLaughlin-Rotman Centre (MRC) for Global Health at the University of Toronto and a co-author of the study.

Singer and his colleagues document for the first time the innovative products and capabilities of 78 homegrown, small to medium-sized health biotechnology companies in Brazil, China, India and South Africa.

Collectively, these companies produced 123 products, including vaccines, drugs and diagnostic tests, for all neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), as well as the 'Big 3' - malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS.

Roughly half specifically target NTDs and are largely new products, not generics, they report in the study published Tuesday in the journal Health Affairs.

'These are diseases of the poor and these local companies base their business model on affordable innovation to meet local needs,' Singer told IPS. 'The owner of one such company told me 'What for you are diseases of the poor are market opportunities for us''.

NTDs include trachoma, the leading cause of preventable blindness worldwide, elephantiasis, leprosy, dengue fever, hookworm infection and schistosomiasis. World spending to battle such illnesses, however, amounts to a relative drop in the bucket - just 500 million dollars in 2007 — or about five percent of the total invested in new drugs, vaccines and diagnostics worldwide.

These neglected diseases rarely make headlines, but they cripple the economic productivity of affected communities and stunt national development, the report notes. Multinational drug companies simply cannot make a profit developing products to meet this need except on a donation basis, it says.

'We are not calling for replacement of the charity of multinationals. Rather, we are pointing out that there is a well of affordable innovation in developing countries themselves that has not been fully tapped,' Singer said.

Companies in emerging economies are filling a void by creating innovative products to address NTDs. Many such firms are successful at reaching local and regional markets. This pipeline in developing countries is like a rich new deposit of gold that needs to be fully mined, said Singer.

'What they urgently require is help getting these products and their benefits to distant places,' he said.

The authors propose a not-for-profit service to provide much-needed expertise to help Southern firms get their products from the lab to additional villages worldwide.

The Global Health Accelerator (GHA) project would help get innovative NTD-related health products to distant markets by connecting a diverse international community of biotech innovators, facilitate public-private partnerships, provide business support services, and operate as an independent hub linking companies, investors, and interested parties.

It will use the power of networking to link to funding agencies, foundations, development finance institutions, private individuals, and venture capitalists interested in financing innovative Southern companies, the report states.

The proposal also includes an annual prize, the Global Health EnterPrize, to encourage and recognise new diagnostics, drugs, vaccines, or devices with global health impact developed by Southern companies.

'We think of the Global Health Accelerator as a FedEx for new drugs, vaccines and diagnostics to combat neglected tropical diseases,' said Singer.

According to MRC researcher and co-author Sarah Frew, firms in emerging economies see neglected diseases as significant business opportunities but typically lack expertise in such areas as international regulatory environments, market assessments, positioning products, including pricing, accessing financing, and identifying international commercialisation partners.

The research and development potential of the South is far greater than the 78 firms documented in the study.

'There are more than 500 health biotechnology companies, in addition to many more academic institutes and universities in other countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Mexico,' Frew told IPS. 'The creative talent is there but obstacles, of which financing is just one, impede progress and hamstring current efforts.'

In same issue of Health Affairs, the leading journal on health policy, deputy editor Philip Musgrove and coauthor Peter Hotez argue that concerted efforts - from mass drug administration to nondrug interventions - could conquer many neglected diseases.

'Neglected diseases affect millions of lives, yet can be treated or eliminated at a relatively small cost,' said Musgrove. 'It’s time for the world to act.'

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service