May 06, 2012

New NIH program could speed innovations for patients in need worldwide

Policy and Advocacy Officer

Late last week, the National Center for Advancing Translational Science (NCATS) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) unveiled a pilot program that aims to speed the creation of new drugs. Under the program, three pharmaceutical companies have agreed to make dozens of their failed compounds available to researchers, who will investigate if the compounds can be re-purposed into successful treatments for other diseases. The HIV/AIDS drug AZT, which was born out of an unsuccessful cancer treatment, has been cited as a prime example of the potential for this new program.

At the launch event, NIH Director Francis Collins highlighted that the NIH needs to “speed the pace at which we are turning discoveries into better health outcomes.” He also emphasized the urgent need for new cures for patients suffering without any available treatment options.

With NCATS, an exciting potential exists for new tools to combat neglected global health diseases. Photo credit: PATH

The new program embodies the public-private partnership model. In 2013, $20 million in US Government grants from the NIH will fund researchers to work with compounds provided by private-sector pharmaceutical companies in pursuit of new treatments. As of now, over 20 compounds have been committed by the three companies. Kathy Hudson, acting deputy director of NCATS, hopes that many more will be available by the time the program releases its first Request for Applications (RFA) next month. No information is currently available from NCATS on what compounds will be available, or what diseases the program hopes to tackle. We won’t have that information until the RFA is public.

In setting his goals for NIH at the beginning of his tenure, Collins stated that global health would be a top priority for NIH as an organization. Now that NCATS—which focuses on spurring drug development for neglected diseases of the developing world, as well as rare diseases—is established and this new program has been launched, an exciting potential exists for new tools to combat neglected global health diseases.

Since its inception, NCATS has unfortunately been slow to take up initiatives that target global health diseases, as many of the NCATS programs announced thus far focus primarily on rare diseases that affect US populations. Rare diseases absolutely deserve funding, support, and targeted research—as do global health diseases. As shown in our recently released report, the United States leads the world in global health research and development. Under this leadership, who knows what groundbreaking cures for global health diseases could be created with the compounds included in the new program?

At the press conference, patient advocate Michael Manganiello spoke enthusiastically about his experience as a patient saved by AZT. “Without partnerships between the NIH and industry, I would not be here to give this statement today,” he said. HIV/AIDS is just one example of the range of global health diseases that remain in urgent need of new tools. Think of how far we have advanced from a time when there were no treatments for HIV/AIDS, and think of what progress could be made in other neglected diseases under this new program.

With this new therapeutics program, NIH and NCATS have created an exciting, innovative model for collaboration between the public and private sectors. They should be applauded for it. Now NCATS must ensure that research for neglected diseases is encouraged and supported through this initiative. NCATS has the opportunity to jump start innovation that will one day save lives and create better health outcomes—an opportunity that should be shared with patients around the world.

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