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The head of research and development at one of the world's biggest drug companies has been chosen to lead the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's global health programme.

Tachi Yamada, currently at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), will oversee grants worth US$6 billion for developing and delivering drugs and vaccines against HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases.

"The appointment is a loss for GSK but a tremendous gain for global health," says Victoria Hale, chief executive officer of the Institute for OneWorld Health.

Hale points out that Yamada oversaw the GSK's Diseases of the Developing World programme, and has a "longstanding commitment to not-for-profit pharmaceuticals".

The programme is among a growing number of public-private partnerships that initiatives such as the Medicines for Malaria Venture, the Global TB Alliance and the Institute for OneWorld Health are pursuing to improve health in developing countries.

"Most importantly," adds Hale, "Yamada has set an example for other pharmaceutical executives — to give back after having done well."

The Gates Foundation has already committed millions of dollars to GSK in a partnership intended to boost research into diseases that primarily affect the developing world.

Yamada's appointment could signal a strengthening of the foundation's commitment to working with drugs companies in this way.

"It is a very responsible job," says Brian Greenwood, professor of clinical tropical medicine at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and director of the Gates Malaria Partnership.

"The Gates Foundation has the same budget as the World Health Organization and has a big influence on what happens in the developing world," he told SciDev.Net.

In a statement on the foundation's website, Bill Gates says that Yamada has "organised the best talent around big challenges, knows what it takes to bring promising science from the lab to people in need, and understands how to engage new partners". 

Yamada will take up his position in June 2006 after he retires from GSK.