Sunday, November 29, 2009

Orphan Drugs for Orphan Diseases: The Non-Profit Pharmaceutical Model

(This post was written for my two-hour blogathon for A Dare to Remember. Please sponsor me!)

Whenever I need a fresh injection of hope, I like to wander over to The Skoll Foundation. Partly because they always have great stories about innovative and inspiring people, and partly because.. well, I used to be friends with founder Jeff Skoll in high school. If only I'd known that my little slacker buddy was destined to become a billionaire philanthropist...

Anyway. One of the organizations funded by the Skoll Foundation is the Institute for OneWorld Health. Founded by pharmaceutical industry scientist Victoria G. Hale, OneWorld Health is a non-profit drug company.

You read that right: a non-profit drug company.

The tragic flaw of America's gargantuan profit-based pharmaceutical industry has always been that so much of their considerable technical and scientific advancement has been dedicated to drugs and therapies for old, fat, impotent, rich white people - while millions of poor, malnourished children and working-age adults around the world die every year from silly treatable things like diarrhea and malaria.

A case in point is Black Fever, or kala-azar. Endemic in some parts of India, it is caused by a parasite transmitted through sandfly bites. Black Fever attacks the organs and destroys the bone marrow, causing the victim to die a slow, horrible death. Existing treatments were terribly expensive and not very effective, and of course the pharmaceutical industry had no reason to develop anything better or cheaper.

Enter Victoria Hale.

Hale found an existing antibiotic - paromomycin - that the drug companies had stopped producing because it was unprofitable, and OneWorld Health ran clinical trials to test its effectiveness against Black Fever. It worked, and the Indian Government approved it for use in 2006, arranging to buy it at cost - about $10 per treatment.

OneWorld Health is also investigating and developing new treatments for malaria, diarrheal diseases, and other diseases affecting the world's poorest people.

Victoria Hale recently left OneWorld Health to start a new venture: Medicines360, which takes a similar approach in developing new medicines for previously unmet health needs of women and children.

(cross-posted from Canada's World)

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