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Neutralizing Neglect

Japanese experts collaborate locally and internationally to fight neglected diseases

Although Japan ranks third worldwide in developing new pharmaceutical products, its contribution to global health lags far behind. That imbalance may be shifting, however, with the launch of the Global Health Innovative Technology (GHIT) Fund, the world’s first public-private partnership dedicated to supporting global health R&D. Since its establishment in 2013, the Tokyo-based, US$100 million initiative has funded 30 partnerships between Japanese and non-Japanese companies and public institutes aiming to develop drugs and vaccines to treat malaria, tuberculosis and neglected tropical diseases. These conditions affect over a billion people—most of them living in poor conditions in Africa—but limited financial returns prevent most major pharmaceutical companies from investing in research to treat them.

“The GHIT Fund addresses an important market failure,” says BT Slingsby, the fund’s CEO. “The demand is there, but the global society still doesn’t have the right tools. That is where and why we focus our work.”

The project was originally conceived by Tachi Yamada, who previously led the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Health Program and is now chief medical and scientific officer at Takeda Pharmaceuticals, Japan’s biggest pharma company. Five pharmaceutical firms, including Takeda and Eisai, helped jumpstart the fund by persuading Japan’s foreign and health ministries to finance half of it. The remainder is currently backed by six Japanese pharmas, the Gates Foundation and the United Nations Development Programme.

Although the GHIT doesn’t seek financial returns, awarded developers must show that their potential products are innovative, feasible, cost-effective and accessible to the poorest of the poor. The fund’s investment covers drug discovery to clinical testing, and it opens the door to access Japan’s vast chemical compound libraries, which have not yet been screened for their potential to tackle the diseases that the program addresses.

Slingsby says the fund’s model of driving open innovation with good governance is changing the Japanese culture of innovation. To avoid any conflict of interest, for example, representatives of pharmaceutical companies are excluded from GHIT’s selection committee and advisory panel, which includes some of the world’s leading authorities on infectious disease. 

Experts outside Japan also agree that GHIT is already having an impact. For instance, Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV)—a nonprofit research organization in Switzerland—has formed 10 partnerships with Japanese pharmaceutical companies, including one with Takeda to test a new drug for malaria. 

MMV’s CEO David Reddy says the fund is effectively helping Japanese pharmaceutical companies, which are “looking to globalize themselves, deep-seated in social responsibility and hold a rich chemical library.” He adds, “We share the same sense of responsibility and strong willingness to work together.”

Illustration by Nicolet Schenck

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