New drug research body will tackle diseases that kill the poor

Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDi) links MSF with public health bodies from several countries in an attempt to bridge the gap between drug development and global illness. It includes research institutes in Brazil, France, India, Kenya and Malaysia. DNDi planned to spend about $US250million ($370million) over 12 years to develop six drugs and get several others in the pipeline, Ms Dinh said.

Sleeping sickness, leishmaniasis and Chagas disease are unheard of in the Western world, but they threaten more than 350 million people in developing countries each year.

With the likes of malaria, tuberculosis and HIV, they account for up to 90 per cent of the world's disease burden, yet attract just 10per cent of health research efforts, says the aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres.

"From 1975 to 1999, only 1per cent of the almost 1400 new drugs registered were for tropical diseases and TB," said Kathryn Dinh, an SF spokeswoman.

"Developing countries are just not a profitable market for drug development."

A new not-for-profit drug research organisation plans to change all that, harnessing some of the world's best research institutes to develop new medicines.

Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDi) links MSF with public health bodies from several countries in an attempt to bridge the gap between drug development and global illness. It includes research institutes in Brazil, France, India, Kenya and Malaysia.

DNDi planned to spend about $US250million ($370million) over 12 years to develop six drugs and get several others in the pipeline, Ms Dinh said.

The drugs used to treat these neglected diseases are decades old, the side-effects are significant, and their effectiveness is diminished by resistance.

Visceral leishmaniasis, or kala-azar, is endemic in 88 countries, including India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sudan, where 350 million people were at risk of infection, MSF said.

The main treatment has been used for more than 70 years, and is painful and toxic. Veterinary research may provide some hope, as the disease also affects dogs in wealthy countries.

"It is extremely disappointing that we have to rely on drugs being developed by the veterinary industry for dogs to have any promise of new drugs to treat people in poor countries," Ms Dinh said.

Sleeping sickness has made a huge comeback in 36 sub-Saharan African countries due to war, population movements and the collapse of health systems. The main treatment is extremely toxic, painful and ineffective due to resistance.

There is no effective treatment for Chagas disease, which kills an estimated 50,000 people a year on the American continent and puts 25per cent of Latin America at risk.

There would be a role for Australian researchers, Ms Dinh said. "We are hoping to tap into Australian malaria research and link it into DNDI and help people in developing countries where malaria is endemic."

Natural born killers

Visceral leishmaniasis or kala-azar: transmitted via sandfly bites in Asia and East Africa, it affects the immune system, killing people in months.

Chagas disease: transmitted via blood-sucking insects in Latin America. Causes heart failure, serious oesophagus and colon dysfunction.

Sleeping sickness: transmitted via tsetse flies in sub-Saharan Africa. Invades the central nervous system; patients lapse into a coma and die.