Nonprofit brings researchers, pharma together to treat neglected diseases

Nonprofit brings researchers, pharma together to treat neglected diseases
Lab at Infectious Disease Research Institute, where researchers are collaborating with pharmaceutical companies to study neglected diseases. (Courtesy Infectious Disease Research Institute)

SEATTLE –A Seattle-based nonprofit is coordinating partnerships between medical researchers and pharmaceutical companies to address diseases that are typically neglected by drug developers.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates 219 million people were infected with malaria in 2010. Another 100 million people are believed to be infected with dengue fever each year. Despite their prevalence, Jennifer Dent, president of BIO Ventures for Global Health (BVGH), said in the past major pharmaceutical companies rarely invested in these diseases because there is little money to be made on their treatments.

“While advances in science, medicine and technology have enabled high-income countries to dramatically reduce the burden of infectious diseases, developing countries still struggle with high rates of preventable deaths,” Dent said.

To find treatments and cures for such neglected diseases, BVGH is helping researcher institutions like the University of Washington, Seattle Biomedical Research Institute, PATH and Infectious Disease Research Institute connect with pharmaceutical companies that can provide them with valuable resources.

“We are leveraging assets that pharmaceutical companies have in the pipeline that they have not brought forward,” Dent said. “We can access their compound libraries so researchers can explore their potential use in neglected diseases.”

BVGH has coordinated 30 partnerships as part of an international consortium under the World Intellectual Property Organization titled “WIPO Re:search.”

WIPO Re:search connected UW researchers with GlaxoSmithKline, a pharmaceutical company based in London, to identify drugs that could prevent and treat malaria. GlaxoSmithKline has a library of 2 million drug candidates that the company has tested for anti-malarial properties. Approximately 20,000 have been identified as possible treatments and were offered to UW for further study.

“Researchers working on the most devastating diseases affecting the poor can and have benefitted from the drug development work already accomplished by the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies,” said Dr. Wesley Van Voorhis, a professor in UW’s infectious disease division. “They have access to things we couldn’t even dream of. By working together we’re going to move much faster towards a useful drug.”

Van Voorhis said partnerships like these are becoming more common.

“Before, pharmaceutical companies worried collaborations would limit their intellectual property,” he said. “A lot of those barriers have been broken down.”

None of the WIPO Re:search partnerships have had enough time to bring a drug to market yet, but Dr. Ken Stuart, founder of Seattle Biomedical Research Institute, said he believes the partnerships will make drug development quicker and less expensive.

“Organizations like this are essential because there is no profit motive to move things along,” he said. “People often badmouth pharmaceutical companies, but in fact they are free-of-cost providing us with compounds and advice. That’s quite valuable.”

If he discovers a promising drug candidate, Van Voorhis said he wouldn't mind sharing his findings with pharmaceutical companies. He said they are better equipped to bring drugs to market.

“If they take it and commercialize it, that’s great,” Van Voorhis said. “It’s just being part of the process that’s great.”

Clearly researchers benefit from accessing big pharma’s resources, but what do the pharmaceutical companies gain from the partnership? Dent said many of the scientists working for these companies have an interest in developing treatments for neglected diseases.

“Companies want to retain the best talent,” Dent said. “Scientists are driven to make a difference in people’s lives and getting their work to a patient population who will benefit from their help.” 

Pharmaceutical companies also receive incentives from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration when developing drugs for neglected diseases. But, Van Voorhis said he really thinks companies participate in the consortium because they have a “corporate conscience.”