Perfecting Partnerships

‘Nonprofit’ and ‘Big Pharma’ are rarely used in the same sentence.  However, one Bay-area nonprofit drug development company, in partnership with a number of pharmaceutical companies and academic institutions, have proven that good things happen when people come together and forget about the bottom line.

The Institute for OneWorld Health (OWH), a not-for profit global health organization, was founded in 2000 by Victoria Hale to help develop drugs to treat the neglected tropical diseases that mainly affect the poor throughout the world. “The initial goal [of OWH] is to improve access to medicines for those who need them the most. We accomplish this goal through innovative solutions and strong partnerships,” says Elena Pantjushenko, associate of external affairs at OWH. With their initial project, OWH took a look at an off-patent drug, paromomycin.  This drug had been left on the shelf and no longer used in the developed world. The nonprofit then worked with local partners in the developing world to conduct necessary clinical trials, produce and manufacture the drug, and push it through the complicated approval process to be used as treatment for Kala-Azar (visceral leishmaniasis). Currently, OWH’s intramuscular injection (PMIM) is included on the World Health Organization’s model list of essential medicines, and is registered in India, Nepal, and Uganda.

Today, OWH is teaming up with companies, academic institutions and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to put affordable drugs on the market for malaria and cholera.  OWH’s malaria program is 8 years in the making and best demonstrates successful partnering with academia, pharma and biotech companies.  The goal of this program is to develop semi-synthetic artemisinin to support the supply needed for artemisinin-based combination therapy (ACT), the gold standard of malaria treatment.  Currently, artemisinin is a plant-based product harvested from wormwood farms.  As crops vary from season to season, the supply of artemisinin is at the mercy of the weather, harvest, time of year, etc.  OWH is partnering with the synthetic biology experts Amryis, Inc and sanofi-aventis to develop synthetic artemisinin (which is based on inventions licensed from the University of California, Berkeley) to make ACT more affordable, and thus more accessible, to the millions of people infected with malaria.

OWH’s third major project centers around their investigational new drug iOWH032 to treat diarrheal diseases.  Some people might say that this is OWH’s greatest accomplishment to date as it demonstrates that a non-profit company can develop an innovative drug.  This success involved collaboration with Roche and Novartis to screen for promising drug candidates and is now FDA approved to proceed with phase I clinical trials.

Near the end of 2011, OWH became the drug development affiliate of PATH, a nonprofit global health organization currently working in the areas of emerging and infectious diseases, vaccine development, health technologies, and maternal and child health. When I asked Elena what she thought was next for OWH as far as drug development  “all doors are open…as long as it is safe, effective, and affordable”.

Elena stated it best, “Forming partnerships that work is OWH’s greatest strength”, and companies are more willing to team-up with nonprofits today than they have in the past. Companies that collaborate with OWH, or other nonprofits, sign up for a “no loss, no profit” commitment.  In early 2012, 13 pharmaceutical companies, the U.S., U.K. and U.A.E governments, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Bank and other global health organizations announced a pledge to accelerate progress toward eliminating or controlling 10 neglected tropical diseases by 2020.  It seems as though people are demanding more from these companies and they are starting to pay attention.

For those career-searchers out there, a nonprofit company, like OWH, may have something for you.  Scientists at OWH extensively research disease areas and seek out new partnerships, work with academics and of course, write grants.  As successful partnerships are key to OWH’s mission, enthusiastic and talented project managers are also an important part of the team.  If you enjoy the collaborative environment and want to do some good while doing a good job, put nonprofits on your radar.  The accomplishments of OWH make the benefits of working together quite obvious.

Recommended resources:

de Hostas, E.L., et al., (2011) Future Med. Chem.

Hale, V., et al., (2007) Am. J. Trop. Med. Hyg


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