Researchers have proposed a new way of encouraging companies to develop drugs against 'neglected diseases', which largely affect developing nations.
They suggest rewarding companies that do so by accelerating approval of other drugs they produce for Western markets.
David Ridley, of Duke University, and colleagues say their proposal, made today (7 March) in the journal Health Affairs, would provide a 'market mechanism' to encourage drug development for diseases such as dengue fever and leishmaniasis.
At the moment, drug companies in industrialised nations, where such diseases are rare, have little incentive to work on these illnesses.
Under the plan, a company that develops a new drug for a neglected disease, forgoes its patent rights and finds at least one manufacturer for the drug, would receive a voucher.
This would entitle it to get one of its 'blockbuster' drugs for the Western market approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in six months instead of the usual 18 months.
Ridley and colleagues suggest that the companies should bear the extra cost of accelerated drug review as a fee for using the voucher, but that shortening the procedure by a whole year could still be worth more than US$300 million to them.
Mark Muscat, a researcher at Denmark's Statens Serum Institut, supports the idea, saying: "If it promotes and prioritises development of drugs for neglected diseases, it is an incentive in the right direction."
But Anne-Laure Ropars, of the Pharmaceutical R&D Policy Project at the George Institute for International Health in Australia, says that the financial incentive is too small to encourage a company to change its drug research programme.
Ridley's team appears to concede this, pointing out that the voucher system could encourage companies to revisit existing projects and build on them to develop drugs against neglected diseases.
Reference: Health Policy 25, 313 (2006)