Feature story |

Wanted: Big Ideas for New Drugs

Photograph by Francesco Zizola
Sierra Leone , Gondama referral center of Doctors Without Borders.  Research on medicines for malaria and other tropical diseases remains scarce in developed countries. At the same time, many of the existing drugs are often too expensive for developing countries to afford.

“Are we happy with a system for innovation that drives resources to solve the problems of people with high incomes, and ignores the impact of inventions on the poor?”

- James Love, Director of Knowledge Ecology International

Medical innovation does not serve the greatest needs

Right now the way medical research and development is carried out means that pharmaceutical companies have more interest in developing a drug that they know will give them a good financial return -  even if it doesn’t actually improve on medications that already exist -  rather than a drug that could mark a therapeutic breakthrough but for which there is no commercial market.

Drug prices are kept high because the pharmaceutical industry says it needs to recoup the costs of research and development. It may be the bottom line for the companies but it is a death sentence for the millions who won’t get the drugs they need  - either because they don’t exist or they are simply too expensive.

Put simply, pharmaceutical companies by and large do not think it is worth their while to invest in developing medical tools for poor people.

MSF sees the results of this skewed health agenda every day in our field projects, where our staff are constantly frustrated by the lack of adequate medical tools to treat our patients.

That's why MSF has been advocating for a change in the rules governing the way medical R&D is done, and participating in the health talks currently underway at the World Health Organization to address this issue.

The Intergovernmental Working Group on Public Health, Innovation and Intellectual Property (IGWG) is looking at ways to ensure that research agendas are prioritised according to need and not profit.  Under discussion are a variety of new ways to promote medical innovation into areas that are presently neglected.

Launching the search for new ways to drive medical innovation

In this series of articles, we profile some different ways in which Research and Development could be funded so that it delivers life-saving treatments, diagnostics and vaccines for our patients.


Paul Herrling, Head of Corporate Research at the pharmaceutical company Novartis, explains a proposal that he hopes will bring together pharmaceutical companies with other partners to create a new international mechanism for Research & Development. Click here to read the interview.


The Prize Fund Model:
From aeronautics and tinned food to new drugs ?

James Love is Director of Knowledge Ecology International and has been at the forefront of the movement to change the current profit-driven paradigm of research and development to one which produces medical innovations for those in greatest need in developing countries.

He is a strong advocate of the Prize Fund model. This model has an impressive record in generating innovation in some widely varying fields from aeronautics to food preservation and space flight. 

Here James Love explains how this alternative model could incentivise medical innovation in areas of greatest public health need.

Click here for interview with James Love.