Billed as the world’s biggest public-private partnership in the life sciences, a multibillion-euro fund called the Innovative Medicines Initiative jumped into the anti-Ebola fray with a call for proposals worth 280 million euros ($351 million) that closed Dec. 1.
“Stopping the spread of Ebola, now and for future generations, is a key priority for the pharmaceutical industry,” said Richard Bergstrom, director general of the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations, IMI’s main private sector partner.
According to Bergstrom, the current outbreak exposed “unprecedented challenges” for the entire health care system, and addressing these will require “close collaboration and engagement from multiple stakeholders.”
Designed primarily to address European health problems and improve the continent’s competitiveness in the pharmaceutical business, IMI was launched in 2008 with an initial five-year budget of 200 million euros — half coming from the European Union and the rest from EFPIA and its member companies.
Phase two covers 2014-2024 and has a budget of 3.3 billion euros. Cash goes to support less well-endowed but essential partners such as universities, small biotech companies, patient groups and regulators. The main goal is to “accelerate the development of new medicines by increasing collaboration,” said Lucía Caudet, spokeswoman for the European Commission.
Encompassing 46 projects, phase one addressed a range of what some consider as primarily rich-country problems like neurological conditions — Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, depression, chronic pain and autism — as well as diabetes, lung disease, cancer, inflammation and infection, and obesity.
Success stories included faster development of diabetes drugs through the first ever human pancreatic beta cell line, new models to better predict drug toxicity, a new definition of severe asthma that promises to unlock new therapies, the world’s largest database of schizophrenia studies to develop more targeted treatments, and a better understanding of the mechanisms of chronic pain.
Perhaps setting the stage for the Ebola initiative, IMI’s phase one also included a project that focused on tuberculosis. As one leading player in the affordable drugs debate put it, “TB is a typical disease that is concentrated among the poor.” A professor of philosophy at both Yale University in the United States and the University of Central Lancashire in the United Kingdom, Thomas Pogge added that “the TB market has been unproductive for 43 years.”
IMI operates in what’s called the precompetitive phase of drug research and development — the early stages before anyone begins to think about applying for patents. Companies, research institutes and other potential partners are invited to submit projects during periodic calls for proposals, such as the one just launched for Ebola.
“Projects then typically bring together both large industry and other partners, who jointly work on the problems addressed by the call topic,” Caudet said.
As the EU spokeswoman put it, the Ebola initiative aims to support international efforts to curb the spread of the virus by deploying additional stakeholders and funding into relevant research areas.
“Due to the urgency,” Caudet said, “a single-stage fast track process will be used for the evaluation. In the fast-track process, the time frames for the submission of proposals are shortened.”
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