Defeating disease can not only help people live healthier lives, but more prosperous lives too.
You need only look at deworming to see this. Intestinal worms cause anaemia, stunting and malnutrition among children living in developing countries.
But effective treatment can have a profound effect. A study in Kenya showed that children treated for intestinal worms go on to achieve higher wages, more work hours and better jobs as they grow older. Keeping children healthy means they can stay in school and go on to become productive adults.
Despite the evident benefit of treating diseases of the developing world (DDWs), there are many diseases for which new or better treatments are desperately needed. More than a billion people in developing countries are affected by diseases that cause immense suffering and isolation, and trap them in poverty. These include diseases like malaria and leishmaniasis.
Research into new medicines for these diseases has been scant. The complex biology, coupled with a low return on investment means that companies have historically shied away from investing in developing new treatments for DDWs.
At GSK, we realised that something had to change. We saw that we could use our scale and capabilities to help meet the challenge of these diseases. But our resources needed to be deployed in a different way. We needed to turn the traditional model of R&D – of teams of scientists working behind closed doors – on its head.
So, in 2010 we adopted our ‘open innovation’ approach. Recognising that no single company, organisation or government could defeat DDWs on their own, our approach embraces collaboration and openness. It enables different scientists to work together, exchange know-how, draw on each other’s strengths and test new models that could be applied elsewhere.
At the heart of this approach is our “Open Lab”. This is based at our research campus at Tres Cantos in Spain which was already dedicated to research in to diseases of the developing world. The Open Lab welcomes external researchers from leading research institutions around the world to work alongside GSK scientists on their own projects for a period of time, accessing our medicines discovery and pre-clinical expertise.
But we’re aware that simply opening our doors isn’t enough. Sometimes researchers also need support to get to the Open Lab. So when we created our Open Lab, we also established an independent charity – the Tres Cantos Open Lab Foundation – with £10m funding to provide financial support to the external researchers coming to the lab. In keeping with the Open Lab model, researchers supported by the Foundation are encouraged to share their work to ensure their discoveries are available to other researchers.
Not only have we opened our laboratory doors, but our compound library too. We’ve screened over two million compounds for any that may inhibit malaria or TB, identifying 13,500 and 180 ‘hits’ respectively. By sharing information on these hits, we hope to encourage other scientists to carry out additional research that will drive the discovery of new treatments for these diseases.
It’s too early to know whether this open approach will help generate new medicines. But we’ve seen encouraging progress. By the end of 2013, 38 visiting scientists had made use of the Open Lab. It has built up a portfolio of 35 research projects, one-third of which are now complete. Scientists have worked on diseases ranging from Chagas to malaria.
We’ve also received tremendous endorsement for our approach from external experts, with additional funding provided by both the European Union and the UK’s Wellcome Trust.
The positive response we’ve received to our open innovation approach in DDWs has convinced us to apply this idea elsewhere. One area that demands a radical approach is the rise of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) – such as cancer and diabetes – in Africa.
If we’re to understand how these diseases behave in Africa, particularly why they seem different to the NCDs that we see in developed countries, and develop medicines that best meet the needs of patients, we need a robust research base in the region. Innovation generated by scientists with a detailed understanding of the local environment is far more likely to generate sustainable solutions.
So earlier this year, we announced plans to create an Open Lab for NCDs in Africa. From our R&D hub at Stevenage, UK this new lab will work in multiple partnerships, including with local African labs, to conduct high quality research.
We hope that we’ll gain valuable insights to help develop strategies to prevent people getting NCDs and to enable new medicines to be developed that are designed specifically for African patients. What’s more, we hope the Open Lab will help to build skills and capabilities among African scientists, creating a generation of researchers with expertise in NCDs.
This could help the continent meet emerging healthcare challenges and strengthen the skills base required for long-term sustainable growth. Another example of how tackling diseases can pave the way healthier populations and stronger economies.