Novartis join partnership against Malaria

By Henry Neondo

The partnership for malaria received a boost yesterday with the coming on board of the Novartis pharmaceutical company.

A press release from the company said that the Novartis Institute for Tropical Diseases (NITD) will initiate research on malaria – estimated to annually kill more than one million people worldwide and one of the top three killer diseases in sub-Saharan Africa.

The partnership, which includes the NITD, the Wellcome Trust, the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) and Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV), will all allocate resources to discover the next generation of malaria drugs.

The press release said that research at the Singapore-based NITD will focus on the development of a one-dose cure for Plasmodium falciparum, the most dangerous form of malaria, and a curative modality for Plasmodium vivax, the most frequent and widely distributed cause of malaria.

Approximately USD 20 million in funding has been granted from the Wellcome Trust, the EDB and MMV.

The NITD will manage the programme and conduct research jointly with several institutions, including the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation (GNF) and the Swiss Tropical Institute (STI).

“With 250 million people infected worldwide and more than one million deaths each year, malaria is one of the most pressing global health issues. This partnership will greatly increase our ability to fight the disease,” said Dr. Daniel Vasella, Chairman and CEO of Novartis. “NITD brings together the best of industry and academic knowledge along with technology and strong scientific networks. This funding will allow us to utilize these capabilities in the fight against malaria.”

Worldwide, WHO experts estimate that 90% of deaths due to malaria occur in children in Africa.

Malaria morbidity and mortality rates are rising in developing countries, largely due to the emergence of drug resistant parasites rendering traditional antimalarial drugs, such as chloroquine and sulfadoxine-pyrimethamine (SP) ineffective.

In addition to the devastating toll malaria takes on human life in terms of morbidity and mortality, the disease also has substantial negative impacts on the economic development of nations in which the disease is endemic.

The drain on African economies alone is estimated to be USD 12 billion each year (WHO, 2000) and the threat of malaria can be a serious deterrent to tourism, further hampering economic development and growth.

Expert advice, project oversight and strategic support will be provided by the Wellcome Trust and Medicines for Malaria Venture.

“Malaria continues to kill millions of people around the world. Public-private partnerships are an effective model for developing new drugs for important but hitherto neglected diseases, such as malaria and tuberculosis. This partnership brings together a new group of funders to support an international consortium of researchers, from the public and private sector, to develop new drugs for the fight against malaria,” said Dr. Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust.

The press release said that the partnership would further focus on Coartem, a highly effective and well tolerated antimalarial medicine that achieves cure rates of up to 95%, even in areas of multi-drug resistance.

Coartem is the only pre-qualified, fixed-dose ACT combining artemether, an artemisinin derivative, and lumefantrine.

Under a public-private partnership with the WHO formed in 2001, Novartis provides Coartem at no profit for use in developing countries where malaria is endemic.

In 2005, Novartis delivered nine million treatment courses of the anti-malarial medicine Coartem at cost for public-sector use by patients in malaria-endemic countries.

To meet demand, Novartis and partners on three continents have scaled up manufacturing capacity to make it possible to produce around 70 million treatment courses of Coartem by the end of 2006.

Coartem was co-developed by Novartis in collaboration with Chinese partners that also supply the active ingredients (artemether and lumefantrine), and Novartis produces the product in China and the US and is currently registered in 75 countries worldwide.

Artemisinin is a compound derived from the sweet wormwood plant. This plant has been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine to treat fever. Studies have shown that using two or more drugs in combination has the potential to delay the development of resistance in areas of low transmission.

Artemisinin-based combination therapies in particular have been found to be highly effective in treating malaria and their potential to delay resistance in areas of intense transmission is under investigation.

The NITD, which is expanding its focus on tropical diseases to include malaria as well as dengue fever and tuberculosis, offers unique capabilities and access to both external and internal research networks. It was established in 2003 as a public-private partnership between Novartis and the Singapore Economic Development Board.

“The NITD is an important member of Singapore's rapidly growing biomedical sciences research community,” said Mr Philip Yeo, Chairman of Singapore's Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR). “We are delighted that NITD will be expanding its operations as part of this collaboration. Singapore is pleased to support this important endeavor to develop better treatments for malaria and advance human healthcare around the world.”

This new partnership will investigate the potential for development of existing compounds that have already shown antimalarial activity, and explore novel compounds. Partners will perform basic and applied drug discovery research, including target identification, development of screening assays, synthesis and the testing of drug candidates.

“It is innovative collaborations like this that will transform the landscape of neglected diseases research,” said Dr. Chris Hentschel, President and CEO of MMV. “Only by working together and pooling our talent and resources will we be able turn the tide against this ancient scourge.”

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