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[NAIROBI] More than 200 scientists from 23 countries pledged last week to boost efforts to develop drugs for diseases afflicting the poor in developing countries. 

The researchers had gathered in Nairobi, Kenya on 21-22 September for the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDi) conference. They heard that only 21 of 1,556 new drugs developed over the past thirty years were for tropical diseases and tuberculosis.

Delegates convened two 'research platforms' to boost research and encouraging scientists and policymakers to share information on two major diseases — sleeping sickness (African trypanosomiasis) and kala azar (visceral leishmaniasis).

"By working together in regional, needs-driven research platforms we are not only on the way to addressing the lack of capacity but also helping in the trials for new drugs," said Davy Koech, director of the Kenya Medical Research Institute.

The DNDi is aiming to test combinations of three existing drugs in an effort to control visceral leishmaniasis, which affects some 12 million people in 88 nations and is fatal if untreated.

Delegates also resolved to ensure that two potential drugs for sleeping sickness enter pre-clinical trials by 2008, in the hope that new treatments are available by 2014. 

The disease — which kills about 50,000 people in Africa every year — is currently being managed by "old, toxic, resistant, difficult to use and expensive drugs", said DNDi's executive director Bernard Pecoul.

He stressed the need for DNDi to work closely with scientific experts from countries affected to develop field-adapted treatments that meet the specific needs of patients.

DNDi says it will soon deliver a new artemisinin-based malaria drug that is easy to use, as it will need to be taken just once a day for three days. This would greatly increase patients' compliance with the required dosage.

The initiative also plans to support training in various aspects of clinical trials. This will build expertise and enhance effective evaluation and registration of new drugs and diagnostics in areas where neglected diseases are common.

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