Northeastern University

How to cure neglected disease

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When I was deciding whether or not to go to graduate school for chemistry I was literally getting sick to my stomach thinking about the prospect of spending the better part of a decade devoted to a single molecule or chemical process. I visited about a dozen researchers around Boston and only found one that even came close to convincing me that this might be a good idea.

His name was Michael Pollastri and he had come to Boston University from Pfizer where he had developed new methods for reducing drug discovery costs. But the goal there and in the pharmaceutical industry in general was always to target diseases that affect the richest people in the world (you and me, essentially). The other ninety percent of the world’s population, he told me, received just ten percent of the drug discovery research dollars. He left a super-lucrative career in pharma for academia, where he would have to struggle to find funding but would be able to devote himself to what really compelled him: the neglected tropical diseases that affect more than a billion of the world’s poorest people each year.

I recently found an email that I wrote to my undergraduate chemistry professor back in 2008 when I met Pollastri for the first time: “I was inspired!” I told her. Ultimately the sick stomach prevailed, but Pollastri’s work has persisted in the back of my mind and when I landed my first job as a full-time science writer here at Northeastern, I was overjoyed to discover that he had found his way here, too.

In the two years that I’ve been at Northeastern, I’ve worked with Pollastri several times to get the word out about the important work that he’s doing. A big success came last winter when we got an article in the Wired UK special edition, “Wired World 2013.” That issue was supposed to highlight big things that were going to happen in science in the coming year and Pollastri had an idea for transforming neglected disease drug discovery that he expected was going to take off this year. Basically it would be a framework for semi-open source data sharing that would allow researchers working in this underfunded area to coordinate efforts without having to worry about their intellectual property.

There simply aren’t enough resources in this area for researchers to be duplicating efforts, he said, so a new paradigm for data sharing–one that is fundamentally different from that of the pharmaceutical industry which is built on a foundation of secrecy–would need to prevail. The year is almost out and Mike is working hard to get this framework off the ground.

He started one of the first crowdfunding campaigns for science, aiming to collect resources outside of the traditional funding schemes, which we all know are struggling.

As the year comes to a close and we take stock of the great bounty we are privileged to enjoy — from oodles of packages under the tree to clean water to a proliferation of pharmaceutical products that keep our heads from aching and much, much worse — I hope you’ll join me in making a donation to Mike’s campaign to help those less fortunate. If you can’t contribute funds, I would be just as grateful if you could share the link with your friends and family. You can also donate your various social media account’s to this Thunderclap campaign any time before December 22.

I love my not-so-new-anymore career as a science writer but and the work of faculty members like Pollastri continually renew my confidence that what I’m doing here is important and meaningful.

Cover image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


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