Monday, April 13, 2009

The Biotechnology of Neglect

What can the biotechnology industry do for neglected diseases (infectious diseases that, because they primarily afflict low-income countries, are not heavily researched in the public or private sector)? Biotechnology enthusiasts might answer "everything," ignoring the dearth of research and development incentives for small biotechnology firms, much less the major challenges presented by the manufacture, distribution, purchase, and administration of biotechnology products. Critics might answer "nothing," drawing attention to the existing availability of simple, low cost interventions against diarrheal diseases, tuberculosis, etc..

A recent article puts forward a series of proposals on the biotechnology sector and neglected disease. In the April 2009 issue of Nature Biotechnology (Leveraging biotech's drug discovery expertise for neglected diseases), authors Joanna Lowell and Christopher Earl (of BIO Ventures for Global Health) argue that biotechnology companies can play a "pivotal role" in developing small-molecule drugs against neglected diseases. Noting that many neglected diseases involve drug targets that are similar to those for high-income country diseases, Lowell and Earl suggest that companies can simultaneously advance their primary objectives while supporting development of drugs for neglected diseases.  

They offer several reasons why biotechnology companies might do so. First is "the chance to prove technology platforms."  Companies might "leverage" philanthropic support to test biologic pathways of relevance to drugs targeting more affluent markets (I will note, without comment, that such a proposal would need to think through justice concerns). Second is employee morale: initiating such research is an important way of attracting and retaining talented and idealistic scientists. Third is "sustaining underutilized discovery platforms." Once companies have discovered a lead compound, drug discovery platforms can potentially languish.  Using this dormant capacity helps companies maintain their drug discovery platforms so that they will be available in the future.

I leave it to readers to decide the soundness of the proposals. On the one hand, the idea that biotechnology companies can derive benefits from pursuing neglected disease research seems plausible, as does the notion that the biotechnology sector has much to offer low-income countries (curiously, the article centers on small molecule drugs rather than vaccines). The authors cite a number of examples to support their claims, and BIO Ventures for Global Health has received a "seal of approval" (e.g. generous funding) from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

On the other hand, are struggling biotechnologies likely to embrace this-- especially given today's credit markets? One can be forgiven for wondering whether this is merely a PR ploy for a biotechnology industry that has sought contentious policies like strong intellectual property protections.  BIO Ventures for Global Health is, after all, an arm of the biotechnology trade association, BIO.  (photo credit: ViaMoi, Neglect, 2007)


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