Ensuring universities’ drugs research reaches the Third World
Photo: Girish Gupta

Ensuring universities’ drugs research reaches the Third World

| Nov. 19, 2009 |

Photo: Girish Gupta

Ten weeks ago, eight-year-old Maurice Ndedgiboua was diagnosed with African sleeping sickness. Complaining of intense headaches, shivering and abdominal pain, he would have quickly slipped into a coma and inevitably died had it not been for the Médecins Sans Frontières clinic he was lucky to have been admitted to.

The clinic, based in Maitikouloou, in the Central African Republic, was able to provide the essential medicine required to treat the disease. His sisters were also lucky to be saved by the treatment. Many are not so lucky. Not only is getting a diagnosis and then the drugs themselves difficult, one in eight people who are treated die solely due to the treatment itself.

Based on arsenic and developed nearly sixty years ago, the drug is clearly under-developed and has had little research money ploughed into it. Raising awareness of neglected diseases such as African sleeping sickness is just one aim of Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM), an international student-run organisation which is bringing its strategy to Manchester.

Set up in the United States, the principal aim was to lobby universities to change their constitutions so that the research they conduct goes to help the poorer parts of the world. This would be done by encouraging the universities to make the most of their intellectual property rights.

UAEM suggests that these rights can be granted to generic companies—rather than the traditional pharmaceutical giants. In developing countries, prices could be reduced by research organisations giving up their patents there and also by participating in so-called patent-pools.

Patent pools bring together patent rights held by different organisations such as companies, universities and government bodies. The pool then licences the use of the patents to, for example, the companies manufacturing the drug, in return for a payment which the pool pays back to the patent holder. This process encourages competition which invariably lowers prices while still not forcing a profit loss to the patent holder. UNITAID is one organisation promoting the use of this idea.

These aims make up the Philadelphia Consensus, adhered to by UAEM factions across the universities of the world. The organisation had success persuading the University of British Colombia and the University of Edinburgh to alter their constitutions in line with its aims. Neither university has experienced a financial loss as a result of the decision.

The most staggering result of the early work of UAEM came in 2001. It forced HIV/AIDS drugs prices in South Africa to drop to 3% of their initial value of $1,600 per year in a deal forged between Yale University and Brystol-Myers Squibb.

The Manchester wing of UAEM believes that the University of Manchester is capable of having a big impact on the statistics. With the fifth highest research profile in Europe, the University has substantial sway not only in the contractual obligations of the release of its own patents but in effecting the policies of other leading research centres.

Photo: Girish Gupta

Vice-President of UAEM Manchester Peter Darkin says that of the £250m in research funding that University of Manchester received, a tiny proportion—five per cent—comes from industry. “By far the greatest contributors were grants from the Higher Education Funding Council, charities and research councils which collectively provided over 75% of this huge research fund.”

Darkin continues claiming that none of these bodies, nor academia, are driven by profit. “Being driven primarily by desire for academic excellence and personal interest, university-based drugs research has a rare quality in that it is not driven by profit, nor is it funded on such a basis, which is one of the key facts that presents us with an opportunity to change something in this situation.”

UAEM Manchester will be holding its inaugural event this Thursday. With hundreds of students expected, as well as many academics, the team hopes to raise the group’s profile in order to eventually persuade students to back their cause before approaching the University of Manchester with their aims.

One advocate of UAEM to be present at the event will be Manchester’s Nobel laureate Professor Sir John Sulston. Nine other Nobel Prize winners, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have pledged their support for the student campaign to bring cheap medicines to the world’s poor.

The keynote speech will be made by Ellen t’ Hoen, a senior adviser at UNITAID and a former Advocacy Director at MSF. She expressed her pleasure at working with UAEM, “which has a commendable track record of successfully advocating for humanitarian licensing policies globally”.

UAEM’s inaugural event, featuring t ‘Hoen and Sulston, will take place this Thursday at 7pm in the SCAN Building. Entry is free.