A UN World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) project to stimulate research into neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) by facilitating patent sharing between their owners and researchers has brokered at least 60 partnerships since its 2011 launch, yet its effectiveness remains unclear.
WIPO Re:Search was created in response to the growing need for innovation around drugs for malaria and neglected tropical diseases. It is a joint project between WIPO and BIO Ventures for Global Health, a non-profit organisation focusing on developing drugs and therapies for NTDs.
A number of institutions are now sharing patents and collaborating, says Thomas Bombelles, head of global health at WIPO.
One partnership saw pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) provide India's National Institute of Immunology with samples of its Published Kinase Inhibitor Set, a library of chemical compounds that are known to inhibit the kinase proteins that play a variety of roles in regulating life processes.
These were originally developed as inhibitors of human proteins, but GSK tells SciDev.Net that they have learned they can also be useful for targeting proteins in protozoan parasites.
Through the collaboration, the institute hopes to identify potential therapeutic targets and increase its biological understanding of such parasites - and all results will be publicly available.
Under the initiative's guiding principles, any resulting commercial products must be sold on a "royalty-free basis" to the 49 least developed countries.
"This serves the broader objectives of WIPO and the UN: facilitating technology transfer, facilitating capacity development and facilitating connections between developed and developing countries," says Bombelles. "Hopefully in five years' time, there will be some new products available."
But despite the initiative having been running for three years, Bombelles says no new drugs or therapies are currently in development.
Indeed, some doubt its potential for any real public health impact.
Rohit Malpani, director of policy and analysis at medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières, says: "From our perspective, it's a good exercise in making it appear that pharmaceutical companies are doing something to tackle NTDs, but the proof in the pudding is ultimately whether or not new products emerge. We doubt that WIPO Re:Search is really what's going to deliver that."
Malpani says that instead the financial incentive for drug research must be shifted away from the selling of a product to the process of drug development itself.
Capacity alongside end products
However, Bombelles says that WIPO Re:Search is helping to build research capacity as well as aid information flow. Thanks to funding from the Australian government, the initiative has also organised sabbaticals for African researchers to work alongside top research firms and universities, such as Novartis in Switzerland and Stanford University and the University of California, San Francisco in the United States.
"It is important to note that the activity of partnering itself is an important accomplishment," he says. "While commercialising new products is one goal, it's not the only one."
Timothy Wells, chief scientific officer at the Medicines for Malaria Venture, a non-profit public-private partnership, agrees. "There is this problem where information doesn't flow freely, and it isn't necessarily going to be fixed by passive data linkups," he says. "But what WIPO Re:Search does differently is facilitate real, human partnerships which go beyond just numbers."
What has garnered most criticism from groups such as MSF is the initiative's prioritisation of the 49 least developed countries.
Nearly 75 per cent of the world's poor now live in middle-income countries, according to foreign research programme ReCom, yet only those in the world's lowest-income countries are covered by royalty-free agreements. Given that it is a UN-backed initiative, Malpani says all developing countries should be covered.