Although tremendous advances have been made in our understanding and treatment of disease, major challenges remain in improving health for populations in the developing world. Complex issues such as inadequate therapies, poor infrastructure, governmental policy, and inadequate health care and education stifle progress. In the face of these multiple challenges, diseases that are endemic in developing nations are repeatedly ‘neglected’ by scientists and pharmaceutical companies based in developed nations. Of the nearly $70 billion spent on research globally, only 10 percent is spent on diseases that contribute 90 percent of the world’s disease burden. As many productive lives are lost, for example, to African sleeping sickness as to prostate cancer, but much less attention has been devoted to the cure.
Meanwhile, the pharmaceutical industry is turning to academic centers to foster the translation of fundamental understanding into new drugs. We have a unique opportunity to combine our strength in drug discovery, delivery and diagnostics with specific hires in parasitology, toxicology, policy and intellectual property to focus on understudied but deadly neglected and microbial diseases.. There is hope through repurposing existing drugs and drug discovery knowledge, since many biochemical mechanisms in neglected diseases are shared with well-studied mechanisms in humans.
A unique aspect of our Integrated Initiative is the co-existence of a drug discovery/delivery/diagnostics effort with critical world health initiatives that address socio-economic, political and legal issues. We aim to answer questions such as: how can intellectual property models incentivize research in global health? How can we navigate social and political constraints that interfere with effective disease surveillance?
A primary focus will be to repurpose drug candidates for the priority diseases of the developing world, building on the seed work of an existing effort at Northeastern. Using high-throughput drug screening, optimization and development techniques, we aim to examine the thousands of drug candidates that didn’t make it to market and test their efficacy against neglected diseases. These leads can be optimized for safety and efficacy, and then implemented in clinical trials. A second technical focus of the program will be improved diagnostics that offer the ability to improve the efficacy and lessen the costs of implementing widespread disease treatment in the developing world.
In addition, novel approaches to drug delivery (e.g. for antimicrobial therapeutics) will be explored. Disease targets will extend from traditionally neglected diseases to include tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. The Antimicrobial Discovery Center at Northeastern develops strategies to cultivate and fight destructive bacteria, targeting for example the mysterious persister cells that are responsible for antibiotic tolerance and chronic infections. Many neglected diseases are microbial in origin, and microbial diseases generally share with neglected and rare diseases an inadequate emphasis in the pharmaceutical industry’s revenue-based drug development model. We will seek ten new faculty, and take advantage of much existing infrastructure to create a world-leading team. Some of the team will come from industry, where many pharma companies are scaling back neglected disease efforts, with agencies, foundations and companies are looking to academia to fill the void.
We see the juncture of the public policy/social sciences activities with the science-driven drug development as a nexus that will attract investment and recruit students to team across the world and address this critical world health problem. We know of no team that is currently able to cover both science and policy challenges for neglected and microbial diseases. From our science and policy combination we will make real impacts on many lives, through new compounds and better development, delivery and surveillance. The Initiative will strengthen our graduate and undergraduate education, and provide global co-op experiences for our students.