Half the World No Longer Ignored

Neglected tropical diseases are starting to get the attention they deserve.

Leishmaniasis. Chagas disease. Lymphatic filariasis. These are diseases the average person in an industrialized nation has probably never heard of. Yet they directly affect a billion people worldwide and threaten to infect millions more.

There are approximately 17 neglected tropical diseases (NTD) that strike millions in the developing world, especially slum dwellers and subsistence farmers and their families. “Over half of the human population is at risk for or currently has neglected tropical communicable diseases,” said Jerome B. Zeldis, MD, PhD CEO of Celgene Global Health and CMO of Celgene, at the World Orphan Drug Congress Europe in 2011.

Despite the widespread nature of NTDs, many of the drugs used to treat them are old or have serious side effects. Better options would be more effective, affordable, oral, tolerable, taken only once a day and able to withstand high temperature and humidity.

Unfortunately, research for NTDs doesn’t get the same level of funding as the big three tropical illnesses: human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), malaria and tuberculosis, which are heavily supported by the international financing institution The Global Fund. NTDs traditionally haven’t been a focus for most major pharmaceutical companies, either, mainly because they bring little to no return on investment.

But things are finally starting to look up. In 2012 the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation donated $363 million over five years to help with research and drug distribution programs for NTDs. Some pharmaceutical companies are helping out by donating medicines, and it’s believed that many people will finally get the treatments they desperately need. “I am confident almost all of these diseases can be eliminated or controlled by the end of this decade,” Margaret Chan, World Health Organization director general, said, according to Reuters.

Celgene Global Health (CGH), a division of Celgene Corporation founded in 2009, knows that disease can prevent people from being socially and economically productive. CGH holds the belief that its commitment to patients should extend to people in the developing world, and that providing life-saving therapies and participating in healthcare partnerships are key mechanisms for promoting prosperity worldwide.

CGH is working with product development partnerships, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), academic institutions and other organizations to assess the potential for some of its proprietary compounds for use in treating neglected diseases. The projects are in various stages, ranging from screenings to clinical trials. Current research and development (R&D) programs target leishmaniasis, human African trypanosomiasis (HAT), Chagas disease, malaria, lymphatic filariasis, tuberculosis, hemorrhagic fevers, HIV and Kaposi sarcoma.

Drawing from its experiences with thalidomide and beyond, Celgene has collaborated with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Indiana University and the Academic Model for Providing Access to Healthcare (AMPATH) to support expanded safe access to life-saving therapies that carry their own risks. AMPATH now works in Kenya to train medical personnel and to improve patient safety systems, pharmacy security and distribution control.

The goal of pharmaceutical companies’ teaming up with global health organizations is to ensure more people with NTDs receive necessary treatments. “Maybe as the decade goes on, people will wonder if these should be called neglected diseases,” Bill Gates said in 2012 at Uniting to Combat NTDs. “Maybe as the milestones go on, we will call them just tropical diseases.”

Although there is hope, a lot of work has yet to be done to vanquish NTDs. At the 2011 World Orphan Drug Congress Europe, Dr. Zeldis said he believes it’s  unacceptable to ignore NTDs and urged companies that can afford to help to do so. “The patients are waiting and there are a lot of them out there.”