A British research team claims to have developed a way of bypassing patent restrictions on expensive drugs used against infectious diseases by radically modifying the structure of their active chemical components.
Their work could, they say, enable cheaper versions of proven, but expensive, drugs to be made available to developing countries.
Sunil Shaunak, professor of infectious diseases at Imperial College, London, and Steve Brocchini, a researcher at the London School of Pharmacy, modified the structure of drug 'pegylated interferon', which is used to treat hepatitis.
By moving a large sugar molecule from the inside to the outside of the structure, they were able to create a drug that, they argue, is sufficiently different to the one covered by the existing patent, held by Roche Pharmaceuticals, to be considered a 'new' compound.
An Indian company, Shantha, based in Hyderabad, has agreed to manufacture the drug, and clinical trials will be supported by the Indian government.
Shaunak, whose research was funded by the UK Department of Trade and Industry and the Wellcome Trust told SciDev.Net that the research team had "gone out to actively find ways of making cost-effective medicines for infectious diseases" that would be available to all.
He said their methods were "complementary not confrontational" to the pharmaceutical industry.
Shaunak and his collagues have already targeted a second drug, Ambiosome, for similar treatment. This is used for the deadly parasitic disease known as visceral leishmaniasis — or black fever — that is spread by the bite of the sandfly.
They will again modify the structure of the active chemical compounds used in the drug, this time replacing a fat globule with a sugar-based polymer, to create a new drug that is both more stable in hot climates, and cheaper to produce.
The researchers hope to have the drug on the market in five years. The project is backed by the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative of the medical charity Médecins sans Frontières.
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