Friday, January 14, 2005

Hope for tropical diseases

Earlier this week I posted about the lack of research into tropical diseases that mainly affect poor developing countries, like Leishmaniasis and sleeping sickness. This week's New Scientist has some encouraging news:
But now, small teams led by Ferguson and a few other groups of like-minded academics around the world are making a determined effort to find a way round the impasse. By bringing together a variety of disciplines and adapting commercial methods, they hope to come up with a set of safe and effective modern medicines designed to save the lives of the world's poorest people. [...]

Ferguson has borrowed a technique more usually employed by multinational drug companies: high-throughput compound screening, or HTS. After buying a commercial library of compounds and a robotic screening system, Ferguson can test 100,000 compounds against a chosen target. [...]

Ferguson is relying on charities and research councils. [...] Because these projects don't fit within the traditional academic framework, getting the money together hasn't been easy. [...] "In order to obtain funding you need to get research published in high-quality journals; drug discovery doesn't work like that."

As for the drug companies, Fairlamb believes they still have a place. Most of the bigger ones already put resources, albeit limited ones, into treatments for malaria and TB. And smaller generic drug companies, particularly in Asia, are in a good position to manufacture tropical medicines. "If we can offer the industry high quality leads for development, they will be under pressure to take them on." Ferguson is more cynical: "It depends on how [the drug companies] are feeling about PR at the time.
A blend of public and private approaches, of the academy and industry. Here's hoping they succeed.

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