Meeting a man with elephantitis on the streets of Cairo as a young boy helped inspire Dr. BT Slingsby for his life’s work on neglected diseases.
Speaking at an event at the Japan Society in New York City, Dr. Slingsby, CEO & Director of the Global Health Innovative Technology Fund (GHIT Fund), said that of the 1,500 drugs developed over the last decade, less than two percent were for neglected diseases that afflict the poorest of the poor. New R&D business models, such as the GHIT Fund, can bridge the gap in funding so that these diseases can be tackled.
“The GHIT Fund unleashes the power of Japanese know-how and innovation,” said Dr. Peter Piot, Director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. “This is a game changer."
The GHIT Fund is mobilizing R&D from Japan’s public and private sectors to support global efforts to address diseases such as malaria, HIV, tuberculosis and others that impact the poor in developing countries. The initiative was founded by five Japanese pharmaceutical companies, two ministries of the government of Japan, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Dr. Mel Spigelman, President and CEO, Global Alliance for TB Drug Development (TB Alliance) stated that product development partnerships can “de-risk” investments in R&D for neglected diseases and lower the cost of discovery. Pointing to the portfolio of the TB Alliance, he said the group has some 25 major programs for tuberculosis drugs in early- to late-stage development on a budget of less than $40 million a year.
Dr Kiyoshi Kurokawa, who chairs GHIT Fund’s Board of Directors, emphasized Japan’s new commitment to provide research and development for neglected diseases through the GHIT Fund.
“It has been interesting for me to see Japanese companies evolve and to see the value of the partnerships we are creating with the GHIT Fund,” Dr. Kurokawa said. “There was a time when, unlike companies in Europe or the United States, Japanese pharmaceutical companies did not look much beyond Japan. Now they want to be everywhere. They now see R&D partnerships for global health as another way for them to become more engaged with the world.”
“Japan’s world class research and development has contributed to blockbusters like statins for cholesterol and thiazolidinediones for diabetes,” Dr. Slingsby added.
Lessons from HIV and Immunization Efforts
Panelists at the New York City event highlighted lessons learned from HIV/AIDS and immunization. Dr. Piot described what led to the major reductions in deaths from AIDS but said that the fight is far from over with 1.6 million dying of the disease and 2.3 million people newly infected last year.
“The end is not yet in sight. But what has helped most in the battle against HIV has been both science and innovation, the reductions in price of those innovations, and programs on the ground.” He stated that the price for antiretroviral drugs fell from more than US$10,000 per person per year to US$100 per person per year.
Ann M. Veneman, J.D., former executive director of UNICEF and US Secretary of Agriculture, discussed the major reductions in child mortality around the world. “Sustainable gains in global health require effective health systems to provide life-saving care and distribution of vaccines, diagnostics and treatment. It is critical that there be collaboration among governments, civil society and communities to enhance health system functioning and results.”
Dr. Piot agreed: “Delivery is a challenge. If we can spread Coca Cola and cigarettes, why not health solutions?”
Tuberculosis is just one representative of the tropical disease burden that needs new answers. “These diseases are neglected and impact the poor of the world who cannot pay for innovations,” Spigelman said. “TB infects 2 billion people. “And that’s ‘b’ as in billion. It is one of the leading killers of children. And it impacts people in their 20s and 30s, in their most productive years. The vaccine is 100 years old, the diagnostics are 80 years old.”
“We need to advance with urgency -- creating innovations and finding ways to deliver them when needed – not when it’s too late,” said Slingsby. “The gentleman I met in Cairo as a child had to live with elephantitis, had to suffer the social and economic strife of such, simply because he lacked access to timely and essential health care. We must do better.”