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Originally published Monday, August 11, 2014 at 5:13 PM

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Guest: Ebola needs a new model of drug development

New drug development models are needed to fight Ebola and other neglected infectious diseases, writes guest columnist Jennifer Dent.


Special to The Times

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THE current outbreak of Ebola, a deadly virus spread by blood and bodily fluids, is the most severe in recorded history. The World Health Organization (WHO) has reported 932 deaths and 1,711 cases. On Friday, it declared the Ebola outbreak in West Africa an international public-health emergency.

Americans and other health-care workers are among those infected with Ebola. But none of the world’s leading biopharmaceutical companies have invested in developing treatments for Ebola. A new drug-development paradigm is critical.

The current, conventional drug-development approach does not work when it comes to creating treatments for rare and uncommon diseases like Ebola.

Companies typically focus on making drugs to treat illnesses that commonly impact populations living in wealthy countries, like the United States. Shareholders and investors demand a healthy return on their investments so companies are limited in their ability to invest the billion-plus dollars necessary to bring a new drug for a disease like Ebola forward.

In order to effectively develop treatments for neglected infectious diseases, including ones recently identified in the United States such as West Nile virus and dengue fever, partnerships involving biopharmaceutical companies are absolutely critical.

BIO Ventures for Global Health (BVGH), a Seattle-based nonprofit organization founded by the Biotechnology Industry Organization with initial funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is pioneering new initiatives to engage industry in global health partnerships.

BVGH’s programs tap into the broad expertise of biopharmaceutical companies in discovering, developing and commercializing new drugs, vaccines and diagnostics. Pharmaceutical companies may not be willing to invest a billion dollars in developing a new drug for Ebola, but when asked, they are very willing to share their intellectual property assets, knowledge and skills to participate in addressing global health challenges.

In 2011, BIO Ventures for Global Health established a partnership with the United Nations agency the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) to launch a consortium called WIPO Re:Search. The consortium’s mission is to accelerate the development of new drugs, vaccines, and diagnostics for neglected tropical diseases, including dengue, West Nile virus, malaria and tuberculosis.

The time required to bring a drug to market can be significantly reduced by tapping into pharmaceutical resources and pipelines. Participating drug companies provide intellectual property assets to academic and nonprofit researchers here and overseas to help researchers address neglected infectious diseases.

The Re:Search collaborations include the sharing of drug compounds, compound libraries, computational chemistry, data, clinical samples, reagents and general drug-development expertise.

Professor Wellington Oyibo from the University of Lagos in Nigeria, where the Ebola epidemic is now an emergency situation, recently established a collaboration under WIPO Re:Search with the pharmaceutical giant Novartis.

Through this agreement, Oyibo and his colleagues in Lagos will advance their research to address diseases that disproportionally impact Nigerians.

“Bringing our experience, in the field and in Africa, together with the capabilities and skills of industry will significantly accelerate new solutions that will benefit us all,” said Oyibo.

Infectious diseases do not recognize international borders. Concerns about the spread of Ebola have surfaced in nations far from the initial outbreak where international travelers have been quarantined with common symptoms of Ebola.

What may be seen as an obscure and distant disease could one day impact the well-being of anyone. Collaborations between researchers in Africa, academics around the world and the pharmaceutical industry not only advance the medical needs of developing nations but also establish multinational networks to address rapidly emerging diseases that may affect all of us.

Jennifer Dent is president of BIO Ventures for Global Health, a Seattle-based nonprofit.



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