How to cure neglected disease

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.