South Africa makes strides in medical research

Janine Erasmus

[Image] The Technology Innovation Agency has
joined the patent pool with the goal of
boosting its research into tuberculosis drugs.
(Image: USAid)  

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South Africa’s Technology Innovation Agency has become the world’s first governmental body to join the Pool for Open Innovation against Neglected Tropical Diseases, established in 2009 by pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).

Originally known as the GSK and Alnylam Intellectual Property Pool, the initiative facilitates access to intellectual property, knowledge, technologies, and products for companies – wherever they are in the world – that work on combating tropical diseases.

Soon after the pool’s launch, it underwent a name change to encourage other pharmaceutical companies, which might be deterred by the close tie to GSK, to join and contribute.

Now the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), which was set up to boost scientific innovation in South Africa and is managed according to the TIA Act of 2008, has decided to become a member of the pool.

This move is expected to boost the agency’s own plans to stimulate tropical disease research in South Africa.

Local researchers will instantly gain access to over 2 300 current drug patents, and will also benefit from the shared knowledge of their international colleagues in significant diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis.

As a pioneering member, the TIA’s move was recently matched by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which became the first university to join the pool.

TIA health portfolio manager Dr Carl Montague said that his company is available to help other South African companies implement plans based on information they get from the pool.

“We have to ensure that the pool can be meaningfully exploited,” he said.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), South Africa has one of the highest tuberculosis burdens in the world. The disease is also an opportunistic killer that often targets people living with HIV/Aids, and has been confirmed as the leading cause of death among these patients.

Working together

The patent pool is administered independently by biotechnology development NGO Bio Ventures for Global Health, based in Washington DC.

Based on the Food and Drug Administration’s identification of the neglected tropical diseases it is targeting in its own initiative, 16 diseases have come under the spotlight. They are tuberculosis; malaria; blinding trachoma; buruli ulcer; cholera; dengue and dengue haemorrhagic fever; dracunculiasis (guinea worm disease); fascioliasis; human African trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness); leishmaniasis; leprosy; lymphatic filariasis; onchocerciasis; schistosomiasis (bilharzia); soil transmitted helminthiasis; and yaws.

It is hoped that, with greater access to intellectual property, the patent pool will lead to new developments in the control of these diseases. GSK has also said it will release some of its drug patents and manufacturing processes, making them available to others without asking for royalties.

Membership of the pool, which is voluntary, has been slow to gather momentum, but with the TIA and the world-renowned Massachusetts research university endorsing the initiative by joining, hopes are high that more companies will take the same step.

GSK announced earlier in 2010 that it would partner with iThemba Pharmaceuticals, a new Gauteng-based company funded by the Department of Science and Technology, to conduct research into a tuberculosis drug, using technology garnered from the pool and that was submitted by Alnylam Pharmaceuticals.

This US-based company was the first to release its patents into the pool, adding around 1 500 in 2009. The Alnylam patents focus on RNA interference techniques, which allows the selective shutting off and tuning on of genes in living cells.

The two researchers who developed the technique shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2006, and the drugs based on this technique of gene silencing are known as RNAi therapeutics.

More such initiatives are expected to flourish as the patent pool’s member base grows in size.

Targeting disease

The improved control of neglected tropical diseases is a priority of the WHO, which in 2007 called for more funding for research and development into treatment and management strategies.

These bacterial and parasitic diseases affect over 1.4-billion people around the world, mostly in Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America.

They are both a cause and a symptom of poverty, proliferating in conditions of poor sanitation, inadequate housing and ineffective insect control. They trap people in a cycle of unemployment and social isolation, leaving them unable to care for their families or themselves.

The word “neglected” is used to describe them because major diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and Aids tend to get more funding and support from policy makers and organisations, while lower-profile diseases, although their eradication also presents an opportunity to lift people out of poverty, fall by the wayside.

According to the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases, the worldwide burden of these illnesses is equal to at least half the total burden of HIV/Aids, tuberculosis and malaria combined.