Study: R&D for neglected diseases still negligible

Despite some high-profile commitments from some of the industry's largest innovators, R&D for some of the world's most deadly neglected diseases remains underfunded and unimpressive, according to a study, a state of affairs that has barely improved over the last three decades.

Of the 336 new chemical entities approved around the world from 2000 to 2011, only 1% were for neglected diseases, according to a report published in The Lancet, and the future doesn't look much brighter: Of the 150,000 clinical trials for new therapeutic products registered as of 2011, only 1% were aimed at scourges of the developing world.

The titans of Big Pharma have long faced accusations that they skip over disease targets that affect the poorest people on the planet in pursuit of bigger profits elsewhere. But many of the world's largest drugmakers have amped up their efforts over the past few years, led largely by GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) and supported by the Gates Foundation. Last year, 13 Big Pharmas including GSK, Novartis ($NVS) and Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) signed on for a $785 million effort to launch noncompetitive, pro bono R&D projects targeting neglected diseases, with Glaxo CEO Andrew Witty pledging "to work hand-in-hand to revolutionize the way we fight these diseases now and in the future."

But it's going to take more than just agreements to close the R&D gap, according to the study's authors, and inattention to neglected disease hasn't shown marked improvement over the past 35 years. From 1975 to 1999, there were an average of 1.3 new products a year for neglected diseases, a rate that rose to just 2.4 from 2000 to 2011, according to the study.

"Our patients are still waiting for true medical breakthroughs," said Médecins Sans Frontières' Jean-Hervé Bradol, a co-author of the study. "People are still suffering and dying from these diseases, and healthcare providers must be able to offer all patients--irrespective of their ability to pay--the best treatment possible. Only then will we say that we have made progress."

- read the study
- check out the accompanying statement