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Prominent scientists have joined forces with a group of students to urge the World Health Organization (WHO) to include in its global strategies how universities can ensure health research benefits developing countries.

Submitted this week (15 November), their petition — the Philadelphia Consensus Statement — outlines how universities can improve access to medicines and transfer of knowledge to the developing world by changing their licensing policies and intellectual property (IP) rights.

Some 80 top law, science and global health experts — including four Nobel laureates — as well as 150 students have signed the petition.

It is unique in seeking to spur universities, rather than companies or governments, into taking action, says Dave Chokshi, a medical student at the US-based University of Pennsylvania.

"Universities respond to a different set of incentives than other institutions and therefore we believe our approach is novel and promising," says Chokshi, who is a member of the Universities Allied for Essential Medicines, a student group active at over 30 universities, which led the initiative.

The petition lays out specific proposals on how universities can improve access to the fruits of this research by such measures as granting rights to companies to manufacture and export generic versions of new drugs to developing countries, price reductions, and lifting of patent requirements.

It also specifies how to improve research on neglected diseases by engaging with public-private partnerships or institutions in developing countries, creating new opportunities for drug development, and carving out exemptions for research in university patents or licences.

Each year, 10 million people die from diseases that are treatable with existing drugs, according to the WHO.

More than half of all pharmaceutical innovations in the United States come from universities, making them a key place to address issues of access to medicines and research into neglected diseases.

"The current IP system isn't working for the majority of the world," says signatory David Mayne, professor emeritus in engineering control theory at the UK-based Imperial College London.

He told SciDev.Net that governments should give universities incentives to adopt the statement. "If universities could change, they could make quite a big difference."

Graham Dutfield of the Queen Mary Intellectual Property Research Institute, United Kingdom, welcomed the news, but said university boards would have to accept the statement for it to have any clout. Even this, however, would not guarantee that industries would follow suit.

"It will be some time before industry is persuaded to go so far as to change the current business model, which involves aggressive assertion of intellectual property rights, and we should not hold our collective breaths on them ever doing so," he warned.

The petition's signatories include Justice Edwin Cameron of the South African Supreme Court of Appeal; Jeffrey Sachs of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, United States; former director of the WHO's HIV/AIDS department, Jim Kim; and Jonathan Quick, who formerly directed essential drugs and medicines policy at the WHO.