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GSK Offers Scientists Labs, Data to Fight Malaria

From Associated Press (January 20, 2010)

NEW YORK_Drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline said Wednesday it will open up its data and labs to outside scientists in an unusual effort to trigger more research on malaria and other neglected tropical diseases.

The London-based company also said its researchers expect in 2012 to be able to seek approval for the first vaccine against malaria, a mosquito-borne parasitic disease that kills a million people a year, mostly young children in Africa.

Glaxo, the world's third-biggest drugmaker by revenue, has several drugs in testing to treat malaria as well, but it is offering scientists worldwide free access to extensive data on 13,500 other compounds that appear to work against malaria.

Glaxo Chief Executive Andrew Witty was to announce that Wednesday, along with other initiatives to fight tropical diseases, particularly malaria.

"We're deliberately trying to target and stimulate other people into this space," he told reporters from The Associated Press and a few other media outlets on Tuesday. We are "trying to do something that makes a difference for those people who live in the least-developed countries in the world."

Glaxo will let other scientists try to develop malaria drugs _ free from royalties or other payments to Glaxo _ from that library of compounds. They were winnowed down from more than 2 million screened by hand against potentially dangerous blood samples containing the malaria parasite by five Glaxo scientists who devoted a year to the project, a rare effort for free in an industry focused on profits.

"These are at least reasonable bets to look at," with the compounds showing some effect against the parasite, Witty said.

Glaxo also plans to give up to 60 outside scientists from around the globe access to what it called the "first-ever Open Lab," at an existing company research lab in Spain. Researchers from universities, foundations and the like will be able to use the facilities and harness the know-how of Glaxo scientists to try to develop new medicines for diseases plaguing poor countries.

As part of the Open Lab project, Glaxo will start a foundation to fund research and idea sharing, kicking in $8 million initially. It will also expand its existing patent pool of data on various neglected diseases, bringing in a new partner, the Emory Institute for Drug Discovery, and turning control over to a nonprofit health group focused on developing biotech medicines, BIO Ventures for Global Health. Finally, Glaxo will collaborate with a South African firm, iThemba Pharmaceuticals, on developing drugs to treat tuberculosis.

Witty was scheduled to disclose the initiatives during a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on Wednesday.

Malaria sickens up to 500,000 people a year, leaving many chronically ill. It is responsible for 1 in 9 children's deaths in developing countries.

"Malaria is still stalking these kids," said Witty, who has spent much of his pharmaceutical industry career working in Africa and Asia, areas where the disease is endemic. "The whole society ends up revolving around the disease," with children constantly sick and mothers sometimes too sick to care for them.

Assuming its experimental malaria vaccine _ now in final-stage human testing _ gets approved, Witty promised its price will be affordable for poor countries but give the company roughly a 5 percent profit so other malaria vaccines, much further back in testing, aren't dropped.

"I think many other potential contributors will be put off if the hurdle is you have to be not for profit" to sell a malaria vaccine, Witty said.

That means Glaxo's vaccine won't be a blockbuster moneywise, but it could increase lifespan and bring economic benefit in countries where malaria leaves people too sick to work.

Glaxo's latest moves follow on Witty's pledge a year ago to provide access to data on some potential drugs for neglected tropical diseases, slash prices for drugs in the least developed countries and put some of its profits from drug sales in those countries into helping to develop health care infrastructure there, such as by training new nurses.

Posted: January 2010