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Global Health Initiative to address neglected tropical diseases

by Angela Herring of news@Northeastern

Ninety per­cent of global health­care and med­ical research money is spent on dis­eases that affect only 10 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion, according to Michael Pol­lastri, a pro­fessor of chem­istry and chem­ical biology who spoke at the Col­lege of Sci­ence Col­lo­quium last Friday.

Nearly 1,400 new drugs entered the market between 1975 and 1999, he said, but only 13 of those were designed for treating par­a­sitic dis­eases, which affect more than one bil­lion people each year.

“These dis­eases affect the poorest people in the world, people who have no voice, people who have no money,” Pol­lastri said. Thus, he explained, the “block­buster” drug model, in which great invest­ments must be met with sig­nif­i­cant finan­cial return, does not apply. For that reason, Pol­lastri, who entered acad­emia after nearly a decade in the phar­ma­ceu­tical industry, believes the respon­si­bility to find new treat­ments for neglected trop­ical dis­eases, or NTDs, falls on research labs like his own.

Toward that end, Pol­lastri announced the launch of the Col­lege of Science’s Inte­grated Ini­tia­tive in Global Health at last week’s Col­lo­quium. The ini­tia­tive will include a unique open-​​source data-​​sharing plat­form. Cur­rently, most drug-​​discovery research oper­ates under com­plete con­fi­den­tiality, despite the fact that this approach may dupli­cate efforts and delay solu­tions. On the other hand, a fully open model is hard for sci­en­tists to trust, owing to the fear of having their ideas and data stolen.

Pol­lastri hopes that North­eastern will be able to operate some­where in the middle: “We’re in the process of devel­oping a model that can help bring data together in a way that pro­tects everyone’s intel­lec­tual prop­erty and yet allows for cross-​​fertilization,” he said.

The model includes an Internet-​​based “knowl­edge store” con­taining data from labs across the globe working on dis­eases such as tuber­cu­losis, lesh­ma­ni­asis, African sleeping sick­ness and Chagas dis­ease. Only those who agree to a set of strict con­fi­den­tiality rules will be allowed access, but once admitted, they will have freedom to use what others have con­tributed to help inform their own work.

“What I’m trying to do is set up a safe area where people can share data, without fearing they’re going to give up their ability to patent,” Pol­lastri explained by way of example.

The ini­tia­tive is cur­rently focused on hiring new fac­ulty in the areas of med­i­c­inal chem­istry, pathogen biology and public health policy and will include new cur­ricula and a global co-​​operative edu­ca­tion pro­gram focused on global health.

From a sci­en­tific stand­point, the goal of the ini­tia­tive is to deliver drugs that will diminish the burden of neglected trop­ical dis­eases, Pol­lastri said. He added, “In five years our goal is to be a world leader in global health research, schol­ar­ship and training.”

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