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[CAPE TOWN] An industry-led 'patent pool', set up last year to target neglected diseases, has finally yielded some fruit.

Drug company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) launched the pool last year, saying the company would make patents for some of its drugs and manufacturing processes freely available and with no-cost licences. Many hoped the move would boost research into neglected diseases.

Yet there was little initial response to the pool few joined it and few made use of it.

But last week (5 May), came a 'landmark' announcement that the first government agency is joining the pool — South Africa's Technology Innovation Agency (TIA). And the first university is also joining — the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States.

The announcement came at the BIO International Convention, a major meeting for the biotechnology industry that took place in Chicago, United States, from May 3-6.

It follows a collaboration between start-up company iThemba Pharmaceuticals (funded by the South African government) and GSK, who announced in January that they would together investigate a new drug for tuberculosis from the pool.

To validate their drug targets the teams will use a technology that has also been contributed to the patent pool — by Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, a biopharmaceutical company headquartered in the United States, which joined the pool last July.

"TIA and iThemba are the first organisations in the world to take advantage of the pool, to be users rather than contributors," a TIA spokesman told SciDev.Net, adding that "these are just the first of many initiatives that we anticipate emerging from the collaboration".

The pool underwent major changes in its first year of life. An initial problem was the close tie to GSK, said Melinda Moree, chief executive officer of BIO Ventures for Global Health (BGVH). Her non-profit organisation took over administering the pool in January this year, to promote its independence from GSK.

"Pfizer, for example, would not be keen to join something called the 'GSK patent pool'," Moree told SciDev.Net.

This month, the pool changed names from The GSK and Alnylam Intellectual Property Pool to the Pool for Open Innovation against Neglected Tropical Diseases.

Moree added that GSK, by its own admission, underestimated the need to support potential users of the pool. Just providing free access to patents was not enough. In January this year, the company set up an 'open lab' in Tres Cantos, Spain, which TIA and iThemba will use for training, among other things.

MIT and TIA joining the pool is "a landmark, full of real promise," said Daniele Dionisio, advisor to the Italian Society of Infectious and Tropical Diseases on availability of drugs in developing countries.

She hopes other universities will now join MIT — perhaps starting with the signatories of a November 2009 pledge in which a number of US universities promised to adopt new technology transfer principles to speed up access to affordable medicines in the developing world (see University patent pledge needs widening, say campaigners).