Bridging the gap between industry and those fighting diseases of poverty

A new global initiative launched this week in Geneva aimed at combating neglected diseases in poor countries by getting drug companies to share their patents and discoveries can be credited in large part to one Seattle woman’s religious upbringing.

But probably not in the way you think.

Melinda Moree and colleague Don Joseph at work in Seattle's Caffe Fiore

“I grew up in a very religious household, with rabid ideology,” said Melinda Moree. “So I do everything I can to make sure any discussion I’m involved in is not driven by ideology but by a pragmatic focus on problem-solving.”

Moree, who I caught up with recently at a coffee shop on Queen Anne, is chief executive officer of BIO Ventures for Global Health. Yes, it’s a fairly boring name but what they do, which I’ll get to in a bit, is quite exciting with the potential for transforming biomedical research and saving millions of lives.

The ideology Moree is currently working against is not rabid religiosity but an ideological rift that she thinks prevents progress in global health. Namely, the ideological gap between the public sector or humanitarian organizations and the profit-seeking drug and biomedical industry.

“There’s been an especially rocky relationship between the private sector and public sector over intellectual property,” she said.

Activists contend patents protect drug company profits at the expense of the lives of the poor. The drug industry, in turn, say activists and humanitarian organizations simply don’t understand that drugs and vaccines don’t just appear by magic.

Drug companies say they need to make money to keep making drugs and intellectual property, such as patents, are needed to protect their time, money and resources. Critics say drug companies abuse patent protections, charging as much as they can get away with and hampering healthy competition.

Whenever a dialogue gets this polarized, Moree rankles.

“I say let’s put aside the ideology and focus on solving the problem,” she said. The problem here is that poor people aren’t getting the drugs, vaccines or diagnostics they need, she said, because many diseases of poverty just aren’t big money-makers.

You can just get mad about that (and Moree does, I can attest) or you can do something about it.

This week, Moree and her colleagues at BIO Ventures did something.

Working with a number of leading drug makers like GlaxoSmithKline or AstraZeneca, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and others, BIO Ventures this week launched a new collaborative effort in which some drug companies agree to share their discoveries and intellectual property

It’s called the WIPO Re:Search initiative. (The website was temporarily down, due to a fire, but here’s a link to the webcast of the Geneva announcement which includes some good Q&A.).

The gist of WIPO Re:Search is to share information, resources and talent to give scientists working on neglected diseases access to a vast archive of industrial compounds and incomplete trials.

“The idea is that an experimental cancer drug that didn’t get out of a trial by a drug company may be of use to someone working on leishmaniasis,” said Moree. BIO Ventures will serve as an “information hub” taking inquiries from neglected disease researchers and matching them up with Big Pharma resources.

“The demand for these products is huge,” said Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization, at the Geneva event. “This group of diseases (tuberculosis, malaria or more neglected diseases like leishmaniasis) affects more than one billion people.”

Chan said WHO welcomed this new collaboration but added WHO can’t join because “I cannot be in bed with industry … but I will be your biggest and loudest cheerleader.”

That’s the kind of ideological divide Moree was talking about.

The global health and humanitarian community, like some religious communities, can suffer a bit from closed-mindedness, adherence to dogma, simplistic notions of us-verus-them, she says. Moree may have started out that way, working on health projects in Ghana and Bangladesh. In many poor communities, she saw poverty at its deadliest.

“It just wasn’t right, or fair,” she said. “There was this basic, core inequity in the world that I just can’t abide.”

Moree also suffers from the same moral imperative that drives so many to dedicate themselves to the fight against poverty. But she also can’t abide ideological barriers and is fine-tuned to finding ways around them.

Before BIO Ventures, Moree helped launch the Malaria Vaccine Initiative at PATH, one of the first big projects in global health funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Before that, she worked at the UW trying to foster collaborations between academic researchers and industry.

Moree is basically a liaison between two cultures. So how did she get the drug industry to open its treasure trove of patented products and research to others?

“Part of it is a business model that’s failing,” Moree said. The drug industry’s tendency toward hoarding its intellectual property isn’t working for them, she said, or making many friends either. As a result, some like GSK have been exploring how to work more in collaboration, and on problems — like neglected diseases — many of them would have previously ignored.

The goal of this new project is to accelerate the discovery and development of new drugs, vaccines and diagnostics for many diseases of poverty. Moree said her hope is that this will open the door to researchers in the developing world, to allow poor or middle-income countries to make their own drugs.

“There’s a lot of potential here,” she said. “This was not a trivial accomplishment.”

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.