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In the past 30 years, just 13 new drugs have emerged to treat the 'neglected' diseases that affect millions in the developing world. Governments acknowledge that this is an urgent problem, and say drug companies should be offered incentives to develop treatments for these diseases.

In this article in PLoS Medicine, Mary Moran — head of the UK-based Pharmaceutical R&D Policy Project — says that, contrary to expectations, several large pharmaceutical companies and many small ones have been researching drugs for neglected diseases.

Moran's team found that most research was being done by public-private partnerships — drug companies paired with academic or other public-sector organisations. Moreover, the companies were working for no direct financial reward.

The analysis shows that large companies often take on such work to maintain a positive public image or position themselves in emerging developing-country markets. By contrast, smaller companies, unhampered by the large overheads of major companies, can make money from drugs they develop even if the disease affects people mostly in developing countries.

Moran and her team say initiatives to promote research into drugs for neglected diseases should discard the outdated view that companies only seek profits, and instead encourage and oversee the setting up of public-private partnerships.

Link to full article in PLoS Medicine