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Raising the Stakes in the Race for New Malaria Drugs

A group of scientists and funders last week gave an initial thumbs-up to a new strategy for bankrolling what could amount to a $30-million-a-year program to develop drugs against malaria. Although details are still being worked out, drug company representatives and potential donors believe they have overcome key hurdles. "Real offers of genuine cash are now on the table," says initiative proponent Trevor Jones, director-general of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry.

Last fall, the World Health Organization (WHO) and other groups proposed that drug companies pool resources and invest the lion's share of funds needed to launch a nonprofit that would develop new treatments for malaria. But the effort began to unravel last November, when industry leaders balked at the price tag.

Now officials at the WHO and other organizations are soliciting support from donors such as the World Bank, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the U.K.'s Department for International Development. The idea is to create "the public sector equivalent of a venture capital fund for one product," says Tim Evans, head of health sciences at the Rockefeller Foundation, which hosted the 17 September meeting in New York City.

Like other venture capital funds, the Medicines for Malaria Venture, as it's called, would look to bet heavily on moving tested ideas closer to the marketplace. It would disburse research funds competitively, most likely to academic groups teamed up with drug companies. Evans says the grantees would develop potential drugs to the point where they are ready for phase one clinical trials or an investigational new drug application. After that, the drug companies would run the show. The goal will be to develop on average one new drug every 5 years.

The organizers hope to raise $15 million a year for starters, and ramp up to $30 million a year within 3 to 5 years. "That's probably the kind of commitment that would be required in the private sector to develop a drug," says John La Montagne, deputy director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Although organizers decline to comment on how much money has been committed so far, enough funding is available "to get the show on the road in the coming year," says Robert Ridley, a malaria researcher at Hoffman-La Roche in Basel, Switzerland, on leave to help WHO develop the project.