New Body Set to Fight Killer Diseases West Ignores

GENEVA (Reuters) - Diseases that kill millions of poor people every year are ignored by Western firms because drugs to combat them make no money, a new research body said as it was launched on Thursday.

The Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDi) links the charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) with public health bodies from developing countries in a bid to plug a gaping hole between health research and global illness.

"A mere 10 percent of the world's health research efforts go into diseases that account for 90 percent of the global disease burden," DNDi said.

"Most neglected diseases...almost exclusively affect people in developing countries who are too poor to pay for any kind of treatment," the group added in a launch statement.

"These patients are too deeply impoverished to constitute a market that can attract investment in drug research and development."

The initiative, backed by research institutes in Brazil, France, India, Kenya and Malaysia, plans to spend $250 million over the next 12 years developing drugs to fight illnesses such as sleeping sickness, leishmaniasis and Chagas disease.

Sleeping sickness has made a massive comeback in sub-Saharan Africa and left untreated, can be fatal.

Leishmaniasis, which destroys the immune system, is rife in rural areas of the Indian subcontinent and Chagas disease, found in south America, is caused by a blood-sucking bug that slowly eats away at the internal organs.

Together, they threaten 350 million people, but existing therapies are often painful and toxic -- and decades old.

"Patients in developing countries are being forced to use drugs with failing efficacy and significant side-effects," Yves Champey, interim director of DNDi, said in a statement.

"They deserve a better deal. DNDi will mobilize scientific innovation to create new medicines for the world's most neglected patients," he said.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Bank are also supporting the initiative, which plans to develop drugs from existing compounds as well as fund and coordinate research to identify new drug prospects.

Its success depends on pharmaceutical companies allowing its scientists access to their compound libraries, expertise and research facilities, as well as on public and private donations.

Copyright 2003 Associated Press July 3, 2003 Thursday 3:31 AM Eastern Time