What can the biotechnology industry do for neglected diseases (infectious diseases that, because they primarily afflict low-income countries, are not heavily researched in the public or private sector)? Biotechnology enthusiasts might answer “everything,” ignoring the dearth of research and development incentives for small biotechnology firms, much less the major challenges presented by the manufacture, distribution, purchase, and administration of biotechnology products. Critics might answer “nothing,” drawing attention to the existing availability of simple, low cost interventions against diarrheal diseases, tuberculosis, etc..
A recent article puts forward a series of proposals on the biotechnology sector and neglected disease. In the April 2009 issue of Nature Biotechnology (Leveraging biotech’s drug discovery expertise for neglected diseases), authors Joanna Lowell and Christopher Earl (of BIO Ventures for Global Health) argue that biotechnology companies can play a “pivotal role” in developing small-molecule drugs against neglected diseases. Noting that many neglected diseases involve drug targets that are similar to those for high-income country diseases, Lowell and Earl suggest that companies can simultaneously advance their primary objectives while supporting development of drugs for neglected diseases.
They offer several reasons why biotechnology companies might do so. First is “the chance to prove technology platforms.” Companies might “leverage” philanthropic support to test biologic pathways of relevance to drugs targeting more affluent markets (I will note, without comment, that such a proposal would need to think through justice concerns). Second is employee morale: initiating such research is an important way of attracting and retaining talented and idealistic scientists. Third is “sustaining underutilized discovery platforms.” Once companies have discovered a lead compound, drug discovery platforms can potentially languish. Using this dormant capacity helps companies maintain their drug discovery platforms so that they will be available in the future.
I leave it to readers to decide the soundness of the proposals. On the one hand, the idea that biotechnology companies can derive benefits from pursuing neglected disease research seems plausible, as does the notion that the biotechnology sector has much to offer low-income countries (curiously, the article centers on small molecule drugs rather than vaccines). The authors cite a number of examples to support their claims, and BIO Ventures for Global Health has received a “seal of approval” (e.g. generous funding) from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
On the other hand, are struggling biotechnologies likely to embrace this– especially given today’s credit markets? One can be forgiven for wondering whether this is merely a PR ploy for a biotechnology industry that has sought contentious policies like strong intellectual property protections. BIO Ventures for Global Health is, after all, an arm of the biotechnology trade association, BIO. (photo credit: ViaMoi, Neglect, 2007)
Think you’re the only one stashing your financial statements in a filing cabinet without first opening them? How do you think biotechnology companies feel? Today’s New York Times ran a story by Andrew Pollack (“Broader Financial Turmoil Threatens Biotech’s Innovation and Cash”) describing the impact of the economic downturn on the biotechnology sector. Among the observations:
– Of 344 companies that NASDAQ is considering de-listing because share prices have fallen to less than a dollar, 25% are biotechnology companies.
– 113 biotech companies now have less than a year’s cash at current spending rates. This is up from 68 in the first quarter.
– One company with major problems is DeCode- the Icelandic genetic research company. This might have particular symbolic significance, given the company’s profile.
– companies are being pressured by investors to cut their research and focus energy on lead products only.
The article goes on to explain that the main problem for biotech companies is NOT credit (apparently, even banks considered most biotech’s too risky to lend to). Instead, the problem is an epidemic of risk aversion among investors, and hedge funds selling biotech stocks to recoup losses elsewhere in their portfolios. The article does note that companies like Amgen, which have widely used products, are thriving compared with the general market. As for the others, one analyst, Andrew Baum, describes the sector as a plane “for which the financial crisis just tipped the nose straight down.” The implications for translational research are obvious. (photo credit: Hawk914, Koga’s Zero- 1942, 2007)