New medicines for neglected diseases
“Something unique from Novartis...”
The impetus for pro bono research at Novartis dates from the integration period following the 1996 merger that created the company in its present form. A key challenge facing management at the time was consolidation of the development pipeline: The new company had inherited more experimental drugs from the predecessor companies than it could afford to develop and expendable compounds had to be weeded out.
A promising medicine against malaria was a potential casualty because clinical trials hadn’t yet confirmed its safety and efficacy. “The pure commercial people wanted to kill the drug because there was no market,” recalls Dr. Herrling, who at the time headed research at the Pharmaceuticals Division. Novartis Chief Executive Officer Daniel Vasella intervened, however, and rescued the antimalarial treatment as a potential complement to an existing program to provide medicines against leprosy to poor patients at no cost.
“Our idea was to find diseases that were really neglected, where we could really make a difference,”
Dr. Herrling explains
That was only the beginning. “Dr. Vasella wanted to help improve access to treatment in developing countries – but not simply by paying for infrastructure or education like some companies in other industries. He wanted something unique from Novartis and drug discovery is obviously one thing nobody can do as well as a pharmaceutical company,” Dr. Herrling explains. “I suggested that Novartis could allocate some of our best drug discovery science, technology and talent to neglected diseases. Importantly, we didn’t want to duplicate efforts already being made in areas like HIV/AIDS. Our idea was to find diseases that were really neglected, where we could really make a difference.”
Discussions with physicians, public health officials and other experts underscored the need for scientific advances in both TB and dengue fever. The spread of drug-resistant strains of Mycobacterium tuberculosis and a rapidly escalating number of patients co-infected by HIV has added urgency to TB drug discovery and development efforts after decades of standstill. For dengue there had never been any drugs available and scant research was ongoing. Malaria was not initially targeted due to availability of Coartem, the Novartis medicine that had pioneered a new class of antimalarials known as artemisinin-based combination therapy.
Recruiting financial partners
The potential impact of unleashing industrial research prowess against neglected diseases has proven attractive to donors. Foremost among these is Singapore’s Economic Development Board (EDB), which supported the creation of NITD financially under an agreement that set a number of milestones for the institute during its initial five years of operations.
Singapore’s bold industrial policy to foster a national biomedical industry aims to complement electronics as the primary engine of economic growth. Philip Yeo, Chairman of Singapore’s Economic Development Board (EDB), outlined his vision in a speech in March 2001: “Singapore must be a player in this new era of molecular medicine,” he declared. “Our goal is to make Singapore a small but significant hub for the biomedical sciences in our part of the world.”
Along with aggressive investments in government-funded research institutes for molecular biology, genomics and bioinformatics, Mr. Yeo promoted close synergy between the public and private sectors. To that end, EDB set aside funds to invest in strategic projects or joint ventures that have economic spin-offs to Singapore.
Mr. Yeo conveyed that message personally during a visit to Novartis headquarters in Switzerland and found a receptive audience. “In addition to basic science infrastructure, Singapore had solid intellectual property protection that is a precondition for industrial research,” Dr. Herrling recalls. “Another thing that was very important was that Singapore is located right where the diseases are. That was crucial.”
Singapore offered to be a financial partner in the new Novartis tropical disease research institute but preferred a fully-fledged commercial research operation to the nonprofit approach. “But Philip Yeo is a man with vision – ultimately he left operational control in our hands,” Dr. Herrling recalls. NITD duly achieved its initial performance milestones and in 2007 EDB extended its financial participation for a further five-year period.
Other donor organizations have been instrumental as well. NITD was able to expand into malaria research under a five-year, USD 20 million collaboration funded by the EDB, the Wellcome Trust, a large British medical charity, and Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV), a nonprofit foundation dedicated to the development of affordable antimalarial medicines. In all, NITD has garnered more than USD 30 million in external funding from major global donors, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.