Neglected No More
Tuesday, October 27, 2015
When it comes to drug development, the invisible hand of the market can sometimes lead to less than satisfactory outcomes. Case in point: neglected diseases, conditions that disproportionally impact the poorest countries in the world. The reasoning is simple: because drugs, diagnostics and vaccines are extraordinarily expensive to develop and poor countries are unable to pay for them, there is little financial incentive for for-profit companies to invest limited research and development (R&D) resources into diseases like HIV, tuberculosis and malaria.
In the interest of public health, governments around the world have stepped in to fill the gap. In particular, the United States is the number one funder of R&D on neglected diseases, spending 12 times more than the next largest funder, the European Commission, according to the 2014 G-FINDER report. In 2012, the US accounted for 72 percent of all public spending on R&D for neglected diseases, a staggering US$1.4 billion.
Japan, despite its considerable R&D capabilities and position as the world number three in terms of new drugs developed each year, spent only US$2.4 million on R&D for neglected diseases in 2012, just 0.1 percent of the global figure. In contrast, India spent US$42.6 million in the same time period, almost 18 times more than Japan.
One man hopes to change this situation, through a public-private partnership called the Global Health Innovative Technology (GHIT) Fund. Dr. BT Slingsby is the founding CEO and executive director of GHIT, a unique collaboration between the Government of Japan, five of Japan’s largest pharmaceutical companies, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the United Nations Development Program.
Founded in 2013, the GHIT Fund more or less singlehandedly increased Japan’s R&D contributions to neglected diseases by more than 360 percent that year, from US$2.4 million in 2012 to more than US$12 million in 2013.
Slingsby, who was a professional triathlete on the US World Cup team before going into medical school, is only just getting started. Prior to GHIT, he served as the director for global access strategies at Eisai & Co, one of Japan’s largest pharmaceutical companies. While there, Slingsby met Dr. Tachi Yamada, then the chief medical and scientific officer of fellow Japanese pharmaceutical juggernaut, Takeda. After excitedly sketching their ideas on the back of the proverbial napkin, Slingsby quickly got other pharmaceutical companies on board and launched the program in a record 18 months.
Asian Scientist Magazine caught up with Slingsby at the Financial Times Asia Pharma-Healthcare Summit held in Singapore earlier this year.