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The "University Report Card" Highlights Need for more University Research into Neglected Diseases

The Lancet Global Health | May 13, 2015

Deer flies are potential vectors for tularemia. CREDIT: Donald Jusa (CC)

This article originally appeared on The Lancet Global Health Blog. It is republished with kind permission. It was co-written by Rachel Kiddell-Monroe, special adviser to Universities Allied for Essential Medicines; Merith Basey, executive director at Universities Allied for Essential Medicines; Warren Kaplan, clinical assistant professor at Boston University School of Public Health
, and Alexandra Greenberg, Report Card Student team leader at Universities Allied for Essential Medicines.

Commercially driven drug development has rapidly become incompatible with the needs of society. While people in West Africa are still in need of a vaccine to protect them against Ebola, the most promising vaccines will not be ready in time for this epidemic despite the fact that Ebola vaccines have been sitting on shelves for over a decade untested on humans. Further, the global scourge of increasing antimicrobial resistance and the ever-escalating prices on new cancer and hepatitis C medications are reflective of a research and development (R&D) model that simply is not delivering.

In late 2014, Tufts University estimated the average cost for private sector drug development between 1995 and 2007 to be $2.56 billion.This is a grossly over-estimated figure inflated by millions of dollars worth of failed trials. Yet, already drug companies have started to reference this in an attempt to justify the arbitrary and often astronomical pricing of patented medicine.

In October last year, Margaret Chan, Director General of the WHO, declared, "the R&D incentive is virtually nonexistent." It is only when governments and society perceive themselves to be directly threatened, as was the case with Ebola, that the inherent conflict and wrongheadedness of leaving the development of medicines, essential public goods, in the hands of private industry, becomes glaringly apparent. Only now are we beginning to see a growing consensus among patients, clinicians, civil society, and politicians that we need to develop an R&D system that focuses first on people not profit.

Given that between one quarter and one third of new medicines originate in a university lab, pharmaceutical companies are increasingly relying on universities to do early stage creative research which effectively turns publicly funded research into privately owned profit. The social mission of academic institutions allows them to use public resources to serve and strengthen society. Our universities can, and should, be challenging this profit-driven system using their unique leverage to both propose and implement solutions to create a patient- centered R&D system. Additionally, we believe it is up to universities to show that potential conflicts of interest created by pharmaceutical funding of university research and infrastructure are not obstructing their social mission.

The "University Report Card: Global Equity and Biomedical Research" is a student-driven project led by the non-profit organization Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM). It serves as an advocacy tool for universities to assess their own progress in investing in innovative medical research that addresses global neglected health needs, as well as focusing on the core role of universities in terms of transforming innovation and access for all. In 2013, UAEM found that less than 3 percent of university funding in the United States and Canada was focused on "neglected diseases." Although neglected diseases (such as chagas, sleeping sickness, or leishmanisis) affect one in six people worldwide, those people are virtually ignored by the current profit-driven R&D model and by our socially-mandated and publicly-funded universities.

UAEM [launched] its second University Report Card on April 21st, 2015. The organization has made efforts to respond to constructive criticism of the first version. The name of the Report Card has been changed to clarify its focus, and it now addresses the number of neglected disease research publications by each evaluated university. The new version also includes an expanded empowerment section measuring how universities are educating the next generation of global health leaders and also has a greater focus on intellectual property issues.

The University Report Card is not intended to critique individual academic commitment to global health or to target university faculty specifically. Its focus is as an advocacy tool for students and faculty alike to draw attention to, and hold administrations accountable for, neglected areas within global health equity and biomedical research.

It is high time the ineffective R&D model is replaced with a new, open and collaborative biomedical research ecosystem. The University Report Card seeks to play a role in moving towards that goal by initiating a dialogue with and between universities. We are pleased to see how many universities and research institutions have responded to this second University Report and are taking part in finding new and impactful ways to support improved global health outcomes worldwide.

Read More: Aid, Development, Ethics, Globalization, Health, Innovation, Philanthropy, Science

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