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The Paris-based organisation, Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), is teaming up with public sector research institutes around the world to develop drugs to treat diseases currently neglected by the pharmaceutical industry.

The decision, which stems from a frustration with the failure of market-driven research to address the issue, marks an important shift in focus for MSF, which has until now has been best known for its campaigning and advocacy work.

The new Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDi) — which is to be officially launched in July — has been motivated by a report published in 2001 by MSF and a working group of international health experts. The report highlighted a desperate lack of research and development (R&D) of new drugs for diseases affecting the poor, such as leishmaniasis, Chagas disease and sleeping sickness.

DNDi aims to help correct this imbalance by developing a 'needs-driven' portfolio of new drugs and by adapting existing drugs so they can be used effectively in resource-poor settings. It will capitalise on existing R&D capacity — particularly in the developing world — and all the knowledge gained through the initiative will be placed in the public domain.

Speaking yesterday in Geneva at an international meeting on developing a global framework for health R&D, Bernard Pécoul, director of MSF's campaign for access to essential medicines said: "Our governments have accepted a system that confines drug development to the private sector and considers drugs as commodities".

But, he said, this system has failed to respond to the needs of up to 80 per cent of the world's population. "We need a paradigm shift in the global rules if we are to put people's needs over profit," he added. Of nearly 1,400 new drugs developed between 1975 and 1999, only one per cent was for tropical diseases and tuberculosis.

Those behind the new initiative acknowledge that there is a fair amount of basic research being conducted in the field of neglected diseases. But they say that this new knowledge is not translated into a form that can be taken up into the R&D process. "The pipeline is empty," said Pécoul.

DNDi has been spearheaded by MSF and the World Health Organisation's Special Programme on Research and Training in Tropical Diseases (TDR). They will be collaborating with partners drawn from the international research community, the public sector and the pharmaceutical industry, with a focus on developing country organisations and governments. For example, founding partners include the Indian Council of Medical Research, the Malaysian Ministry of Health and the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Brazil.

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