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Alternative models: Paul Herrling interview

Paul Herrling, Head of Corporate Research at the pharmaceutical company Novartis, explains some key ideas behind a proposal to bring together pharmaceutical companies with a range of other partners to create a new international mechanism for Research and Development.

What's the basic principle underlying your proposals?

The idea is simply to do just what the pharmaceutical companies do anyway minus the commercial part -  that means the money would not come from the sales of products but would come from those people who have up until now funded or SHOULD fund these activities – that's of course the charities like the Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust and others but also of course governments – both the richer countries with development programmes and the European Community but also very prominently the governments of the countries who have the patients. And the idea is that a fund would be created from these sources to finance the research and development programmes.

Your proposals still include using intellectual property rights as a way to incentivise the discovery process?

Some of the drugs we now have for neglected diseases were developed for other indications of the developed world and turn out to also be effective in neglected diseases. The opposite can happen too – what you develop for neglected diseases might be commercially viable in other areas so the idea is that the person who applies to this fund, would patent their inventions as they normally would, but the moment they get the money from the fund they would give an exclusive license for the neglected indication to the fund. Now for the other diseases  - which are not part of this neglected diseases group -  the drug could be licensed to other, commercial people who could develop it for commercial ends. BUT and that's the one twist to it, if the drug given to the fund for TB for instance, happens to work, say, in hospital infection and I make money on this, but part of the data I used to do this would have been paid by the fund,  then I owe a certain license or royalty back into the fund and this is kind of a refinancing of the initial money that went in.

Working on tropical diseases is a new arena for pharmaceutical companies and brings new challenges in terms of developing drugs at very low cost and which are adapted for use in poor settings. Novartis has set up an Institute for Tropical Diseases in Singapore to address these challenges?

Yes, we even established a small clinical research station in Indonesia because Singapore, being a rich spot, is the exception in the region.  The patients are found mostly in poor environments so in order to have access to those typical patients we went to Indonesia. What we also learnt with our big malaria project is that even if you have a drug that works at 95% efficacy, you haven't yet solved the problem. You still have to get the drug to the patients.

How far does the Institute go in realising in concrete form some of the proposals that you've put forward? The mission of the institute is probably to go all the way in development as far as proof of concept in man – but then for the full development we were looking for partners and so we tried to design agreements that will be both agreeable to the funders and to us the originators, and that goes exactly along the lines of what I've been describing so I know already that it's acceptable both for pharmaceutical companies and for funders whose mission is not for profit.