Merck, Wellcome create new model for vaccine development

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The quest to bring affordable vaccines to the developing world is taking a fresh turn with the creation of a research centre uniting industry and academia.

The formation of MSD Wellcome Trust Hilleman Laboratories — named after the pioneering microbiologist and vaccine creator Maurice Hilleman — marks the first time a major research charity, the Wellcome Trust, and a pharmaceutical company, Merck & Co, join forces to form an independent research centre with shared funding and decision-making rights.

The Wellcome Trust and Merck will each inject £45 million (US$74 million) into the not-for-profit centre over seven years.

Research will concentrate on two streams: the development of new vaccines for diseases that particularly affect the developing world and the optimisation of existing vaccines — for instance, by adapting vaccines so they do not need refrigeration.

The centre aims to carry products through to the critical ‘proof of concept’ stage — a step often not reached by vaccine candidates, as academic scientists who identify them frequently do not have the wherewithal to progress them further.

The centre will circumvent these obstacles by providing key expertise that is typically available only within large vaccine companies. It will also work with vaccine manufacturers to ensure that vaccines are affordable and suitable for developing countries.

The Hilleman Laboratories will be based in India in a location that is yet to be decided, and it will be headed by Altaf A. Lal, who previously spent 20 years at the National Center for Infectious Diseases of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. His initial team of 60 researchers is expected to start work towards the end of next year.

Speaking yesterday (17 September), Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust, said: "We need to combine the ingenuity of academia with industry’s knowhow and ability to make products."

He added that the centre would be characterised by transparency and an outward-looking approach, and would seek advice and expertise from across sectors.

Lal told SciDev.Net he hopes to collaborate with the Indian generics industry once the centre is up and running. He adds that generics companies held much-needed expertise and that the centre’s goal is to leverage skills, not to compete.

Walport described the Wellcome Trust-Merck & Co partnership as "entirely equal" and says there are clear mutual benefits to such a collaboration — such as being able to target diseases that are not in the pipelines of either company.

He said the challenge is for the centre to become a stable, self-sustaining not-for-profit organisation. This, he stressed, will require both funding and expertise from other organisations.

Richard T. Clark, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Merck & Co, said: "We have a moral and ethical responsibility to take [Maurice] Hilleman’s vision and passion one step further into the developing world. There is no doubt in my mind that this will be a world-class institution."