Health bodies launch research push to find cures for unfashionable diseases

Geneva - Six health bodies on Thursday launched a US$250 million push to find cures for three diseases they say have been forgotten by commercial drug companies.

The Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative, launched by the Nobel prize-winning aid group Doctors Without Borders and five major health institutes, will fund research projects for drugs to treat three parasitic diseases - sleeping sickness, leishmaniasis and Chagas disease.

The initiative claims that only 10 percent of research funding is spent on diseases that account for 90 percent of illness worldwide because commercial drug companies see no profit in spending money on diseases that affect only poor nations.

"Patients in developing countries are being forced to use drugs with failing efficacy and significant side-effects," said Dr. Yves Champey, interim director of the initiative. "They deserve better."

The World Health Organization estimates that between 300,000 and 500,000 people in 36 African countries suffer from sleeping sickness, which is carried by the tsetse fly. About 80 percent die before being diagnosed as the parasites enter their brains. Chagas Disease is a similar condition, carried by blood-sucking insects, that affects primarily Latin America.

Leishmaniasis is carried by the sandfly and is most common in Asia and Brazil. WHO estimates that 12 million people are affected worldwide.

The initiative plans to spend around US$250 million over 12 years to develop six to seven new drugs and support a number that are already in development. Already it has received 71 project submissions.

"The overwhelming response shows that the science for these neglected diseases is out there waiting to be tapped. What's missing is the structure to take the most promising project ideas through the full drug development pipeline," Champey said.

The five institutes involved in the project are the Indian Council of Medical Research, France's Pasteur Institute, the Kenya Medical Research Institute, the Ministry of Health of Malaysia and the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation from Brazil.

Champey said the initiative's success will depend not only on government and private donations but also on help from pharmaceutical companies, such as access to compound libraries, expertise, and research and development facilities.