Japan Joins Fight Against Neglected Diseases

Drug target. The tuberculosis bacteria will be one target of a new Japanese effort to develop treatments for neglected diseases.

Janice Haney Carr/CDC

Tens of thousands of new compounds will be screened for effectiveness against critical illnesses

Japan is joining global efforts to contain malaria, tuberculosis, and a variety of tropical diseases in a big way. A recently formed public-private partnership will on Saturday formally announce agreements to screen tens of thousands of drug candidates from Japanese private and public sector compound libraries for treatments for illnesses that primarily afflict the poor in developing countries.

The 11 initial agreements are the first fruits of a recently formed public-private Global Health Innovative Technology Fund (GHIT Fund). It was set up in April and brings together Japan's foreign affairs and health and welfare ministries, a consortium of five pharmaceutical companies, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Japanese government is putting up a bit over one-half of the $100 million that is committed to GHIT over the next 5 years; the drugmakers and the Gates Foundation are contributing the rest. Funding could increase if more companies join the consortium, says BT Slingsby, the fund's CEO and executive director.

Slingsby says that Japan has been a bit behind other nations in contributing to the global health R&D effort. Even though Japan is a major producer of new pharmaceuticals, Japanese companies lack the size and global recognition of American and European pharma giants. Although Japan has been one of the biggest contributors to development assistance in recent years, little of that money has previously gone into global health R&D. And the major nongovernmental organizations addressing global health concerns are based in the United States or Europe, leaving Japan out of the picture.

To get back into the game, GHIT looked for a new model rather than creating new nonprofit organizations focused on specific diseases, Slingsby says. "We're trying to be additive and not replicate what's out there," he says. So they are working with established nonprofits—the Global Alliance for TB Drug Development, the Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV), and the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi)—to help develop candidate drugs.

GHIT funding will enable researchers to test compounds from the libraries of Japanese drugmakers Eisai, Daiichi Sankyo, Shionogi, and Takeda Pharmaceutical, and the private Tokyo-based nonprofit Institute of Microbial Chemistry. The TB Alliance and MMV are searching for drugs to augment current treatments for tuberculosis and malaria that are losing efficacy. DNDi hopes to find treatments for three neglected tropical diseases—leishmaniasis, Chagas disease, and sleeping sickness. Astellas Pharma is also involved in the initiative.