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Big Pharma drives R&D push for new drugs to treat neglected diseases

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The campaign to develop new drugs for traditionally neglected diseases like malaria has been gaining steam. An industry organization surveyed the field and found 132 R&D programs under way in 2012, a 40% increase over the year before, as billions of dollars are being pumped into a fresh set of collaborations.

The vast majority of those programs--112 to be exact--are being conducted in partnerships with key pharma players, according to the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations. And 15%, or 20 programs, are being driven entirely by companies. In stark contrast, just 7 years ago the industry association could find only about 30 R&D programs in progress for neglected diseases, a roster of ailments that afflict poor populations unable to afford the medicines that drive profitability in the industry.

The spike in research activity, though, has a long way to go before it can translate into newly approved drugs. And that's been a source of real frustration for some researchers in the field. A new study out late last year concluded that heightened activities in the field over the past decade had not produced any significant increase in new drug approvals for neglected conditions. Only 37 of the 850 new drugs approved between 2000 and 2011 were for neglected diseases, Nature reported, and only four of those treatments were actually new chemical entities--a woeful track record. 

The lion's share of the cash needed to do the new work is coming from public sources, says the IFPMA. The new analysis finds that the public sector provided close to $2 billion of the $3.05 billion spent in 2011. Philanthropic groups contributed another $570 million, with pharma companies coming in third with $525 million. 

Some pharma giants do the work themselves, or simply finance outside groups that do the work. Lilly ($LLY), for example, helps fund the Infectious Disease Research Institute in Seattle, which is doing early-stage work on new TB drugs. Sanofi ($SNY), GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) and AstraZeneca ($AZN) are among the most active companies, according to the report, which breaks down each of the 132 research programs it was able to track.

- here's the report

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