Placeholder Banner

Biopharma Companies Fight Tropical Diseases to Improve Global Health

October 5, 2015
Neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) are a group of devastating viral, bacterial, and parasitic diseases that predominantly burden individuals and communities living in poverty. NTDs received the moniker “neglected” due to the lack of attention they have received from the global biopharmaceutical community, and the resultant dearth of products available to prevent, diagnose, and treat them. This has been changing, though – Knight Therapeutics Inc. developed a drug to treat leishmaniasis (Impavido®) in 2014, Sanofi Pasteur plans to file for registration of its tetravalent dengue vaccine in 20 countries, and Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen Global Public Health is working with partners to develop treatments for lymphatic filariasis and onchocerciasis. Besides these efforts, companies have found other ways of helping to diminish the burden of NTDs. Since 2012, companies have contributed pharmaceutical compounds to NTD researchers through WIPO Re:Search. Other companies are similarly sharing compounds through other global initiatives such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Uniting to Combat NTDs initiative and the Global Health Innovative Technology (GHIT) Fund. Industry’s impact on this field isn’t restricted to the sharing of tangible assets, however.

Biopharmaceutical companies are the undisputed drug discovery and development experts, and with that distinction comes the key knowledge, insights, and know-how needed to efficiently and effectively move products from early discovery to the market. This knowledge is useful to academic and nonprofit NTD researchers that are unfamiliar with this territory.  Recognizing this, several companies are actively sharing their knowledge with NTD researchers – including those from NTD-endemic regions. For example, Novartis hosted and trained senior scientists from the University of Buea in Cameroon and the University of Lagos in Nigeria. For three months, the two researchers worked alongside Novartis scientists, gaining firsthand experience in pipeline development processes and management, drug manufacturing QA/QC, and small molecule isolation and characterization, as well as a number of cutting-edge analytical methods. These researchers have since returned to their home institutions and have begun applying the techniques learned to their own NTD research.

To have an impact on a large group of researchers simultaneously, pharmaceutical companies can also send their scientists to NTD research laboratories. In collaboration with Merck* through the Merck Fellowship for Global Health program, BIO Ventures for Global Health (BVGH) placed two Merck pharmaceutical scientists at the University of Buea, the Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research (Ghana), and the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kenya) for three weeks each in the summer of 2014. During these visits, the two Merck scientists worked alongside the centers’ researchers and shared their individual skills and expertise. They also gave seminars that described some of the methods, activities, and knowledge of the pharmaceutical industry.

The three research centers visited by the Merck scientists focus significantly on the discovery of new drugs – especially from natural sources – to treat many of the tropical diseases endemic to Africa. Unfortunately, a constant comment the Merck scientists heard throughout their visit was that the research centers did not have the proper equipment needed to perform more than basic drug discovery assays. If a project was to move forward, the African scientists often had to identify an external collaborator willing and able to perform the necessary next steps. The following summer, BVGH placed two new Merck scientists back at the University of Buea – this time alongside a gently-used high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) machine, also donated by Merck. Together, these two scientists installed the machine and, more importantly, taught the University’s scientists how to use the equipment. HPLC machines can be used to characterize the composition of plant or microbial extracts and can be coupled with bioassay data to identify those specific components with anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, or anti-parasitic properties – an essential analytical tool for natural product drug discovery.

Agilent Technologies, the manufacturer of the donated HPLC, was also an integral component of this project. The company not only donated a license to the software needed to run the HPLC and analyze data (ChemStation), along with a set of consumables, but Agilent technicians also virtually assisted the two Merck scientists as they set up the HPLC and connected it to the ChemStation software.

The examples above describe but a few of the numerous opportunities that biopharmaceutical companies have to contribute to the development of products for NTDs. With 1.4 billion people currently affected by at least one NTD, any contribution – whether it be compounds, data, expertise, or equipment – has the propensity to dramatically improve the lives of people across the globe.

*Merck, a global health care leader based in Kenilworth, N.J., U.S.A. is known as MSD outside the United States and Canada


Jennifer joined BVGH in September 2011 and became President in November 2012. She has 20+ years of broad-based pharmaceutical and biotechnology experience including negotiation and structuring of deals, and management of global discovery and commercial alliances. Jennifer has held a number of senior management positions in marketing, life cycle management, global product strategy, business development, and alliance management at Roche and Genentech in Canada, Switzerland, New Jersey, and South San Francisco. Jennifer co-founded Sound Biotechnology, and prior to that, served as Vice President, Business Development, Marketing, and Sales at CombiMatrix Corporation in Washington.