Patient Centric - Pharmaceutical Executive


Patient Centric
Five years ago, in the race to deliver Gleevec, Novartis leaders glimpsed what a pharma company could be. Today, across the company, theyre putting that experience to work.

Pharmaceutical Executive

The next step, as Herrling puts it, is "to try to take exactly the same state-of-the-art drug discovery skills and equipment and science we use for our commercial products and dedicate some of them to addressing these neglected diseases."

The vehicle the company has chosen is the not-for-profit Novartis Institute for Tropical Diseases (NITD), a $120 million drug discovery joint venture of Novartis funding and the Singapore Economic Development Board. Launched about a year ago and based in Singapore's Biopolis R&D center, NITD employs about 65 people and is expected to grow to 100, including 70 scientists. Because it is set up as a separate organization, it is free to accept charitable donations and to partner with organizations such as the Global Alliance for TB, which has strong clinical trials capabilities. At the same time, because of its connections to Novartis, it has access to laboratory services such as high-throughput screening at cost.

NITD is currently working on two diseases: multidrug-resistant tuberculosis and the emerging viral disease dengue fever.

"In tuberculosis we are going to specifically focus our effort on new targets," says Herrling, who also serves as NITD's chair. "Because you have to overcome resistance, you cannot go after the targets addressed by older drugs. One of them is peptide deformylase, an enzyme essential to bacteria but not found in humans."

Dengue has a relatively simple genome, Herrling says—just a single gene that produces a number of proteins. "There we have selected a target called nonstructural protein 2, which is a protease that the virus needs for replication. We think we know how to do protease inhibitors, and we are going to apply our chemical skills to find leads for that."

Novartis at a Glance
Drugs discovered by NITD will be patented by the organization. "We will then license them to anyone who wants to produce them for populations in the poor countries that need it at cost or no cost," says Herrling. It is possible that some compounds will have applications in the developed world. (The dengue virus, for instance, belongs to a genetic group that includes West Nile fever, Japanese encephalitis, tick-borne encephalitis, and even hepatitis C virus.) Profits from any products developed by NITD would be plowed back into developing additional drugs for the developing world.

"Biology," says Herrling, "does not draw any sharp boundary between commercial and noncommercial medicine."


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