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Developing Countries Now Conducting Medical Research

Scientists have sequenced the genomes of the parasites responsible for 3 major diseases that mainly afflict people in the developing world. The work could help researchers develop ways to treat or prevent the diseases. And much of the work was done outside the usual scientific powerhouse countries.

The 3 diseases - sleeping sickness, Chagas disease and a disfiguring condition called leishmaniasis - sicken millions of people each year, and knowledge of their genetic profile could be a significant step toward developing drugs and vaccines. In fact, because more than 6,000 genes are common to all 3 parasites, it might be possible to develop a single drug that would be effective against all 3 diseases.

The research was published this month in the journal Science, which notes that much of the gene sequencing was done at laboratories in Africa and Latin America.

That doesn't surprise Carlos Morel, a Brazilian researcher who wrote in a separate article in Science that the innovative capacity of developing countries is often underestimated. "You have countries like China, India and Brazil, which ... have 'islands' of innovative capacity," said Dr. Morel. "And some of the indexes used up to now, they do not pinpoint this phenomenon."

So Dr. Morel and his colleagues created a new measure to better illustrate the level of innovation in nations that in some ways might still be considered "developing countries." Their formula considers the number of U.S. patents per capita, with adjustments for the countries' economic output. By this measure, the United States and Japan are the world's leading innovators, but they are followed by India and China -- ahead of technology leaders such as Germany and South Korea.

Because of the propagation of technology beyond its traditional strongholds, Carlos Morel says innovative developing countries can now often find partners among other similar countries -- South-South cooperation, if you will, not just North-South.

"The traditional view was that we should always cooperate only with the most advanced countries," said Carlos Morel. "This is true. Brazil has most of her connections with the United States. But we should not forget that some solutions can be found internally or in countries at a similar level of development."

The idea for sequencing the genes of the 3 parasites emerged from a meeting that took place in Brazil in 1994. At the time, admits Dr. Morel, the idea that scientists in what some call the "third world" could succeed might have seemed unlikely. "But I think the network that we assembled, finally after 11 years, most of the work was done. So I think this shows as a good example that some initiatives can bear fruit even if, at the time, it was considered too premature or too unrealistic."

Carlos Morel points out that a number of important pharmaceuticals have already emerged from labs in less developed countries, including the first effective meningitis B vaccine, developed in Cuba; and a malaria drug known as E-mal, from India.