Report urges focus on drugs for neglected diseases

LONDON Wed Feb 16, 2011 4:46pm EST

Hoang Tie Loi, a 90 year old leprosy affected woman, after planting a banana tree in the village of Van Mon, south of Hanoi, October 24, 2010. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Hoang Tie Loi, a 90 year old leprosy affected woman, after planting a banana tree in the village of Van Mon, south of Hanoi, October 24, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Damir Sagolj

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LONDON (Reuters) - A rise in global funding for research into neglected diseases needs to be matched by a continued focus on delivering practical new ways to curb sickness in the developing world, a report said Wednesday.

While spending rose 8.2 percent to $3.2 billion in 2009, there was also a 9.0 percent drop in funding for non-profit groups that produce new drugs, vaccines and diagnostic tools.

"Funders need to be careful not to take their eye off the ball," Mary Moran, one of the authors of the Global Funding of Innovation for Neglected Diseases (G-FINDER), told reporters.

"More funding is vital... but it's just as important that the funds are spent wisely.

"Increased public spending on domestic researchers is an understandable strategy in hard economic times, but only if it achieves the aim of creating new medicines and vaccines for those in the developing world."

The World Health Organization's first report on neglected diseases last year said that while they cost billions of dollars in lost productivity, they are often ignored because they affect mainly poor people and do not offer a profitable market for drugmakers.

In the G-FINDER report, Moran pointed to recent successes from so-called product development partnerships (PDPs) between drugmakers and research groups and said other similar projects could deliver many more useful products.

A vaccine costing just $0.50 and designed to protect against meningitis A was launched last year, and new tuberculosis vaccines are in advanced clinical trials.

Both Jon Pender, of British drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline, and Joe Cerrell of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation which funded the report, said there was a "worrying trend" away from investment in PDPs, just when they need more money to further a potentially promising pipeline.

The report said such partnerships currently have around 140 drugs, vaccines and diagnostic tools in development, including a malaria vaccine from GSK which is in late-stage trials.

"The impact potential, if we get more products available and distributed to populations in the developing world, is enormous," said Cerrell, who heads the Gates Foundation's European office.

The G-FINDER report found that year-on-year neglected disease funding rose by 239 million in 2009, with most increase coming from public funders such as the United States National Institutes of Health.

The pharmaceutical industry's contribution also rose, by $43 million to just over $411 million, or around 13 percent of total 2009 R&D funding for neglected diseases.

Funding was also better distributed between diseases, with the proportion of funding going toward HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined falling to 72 percent in 2009 from 77 percent in 2007.

Other diseases such as dengue and diarrheal diseases gained ground, but leprosy, trachoma, rheumatic fever and Buruli ulcer were at the bottom of the scale, each getting less that 0.3 percent of R&D funds.

(Editing by David Cowell)

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