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South Korean Lab Focuses on Neglected Diseases

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A branch of a French research institute is developing new drugs to combat diseases mainly afflicting developing countries - including so-called neglected diseases, which kill millions of people each year. These diseases range from parasitic infections like sleeping sickness, to viral maladies like dengue fever. They typically get less attention from international drug companies looking to develop treatments that can generate larger profits.

There have been breakthroughs in fighting some of the world’s most serious and common diseases, thanks to start-up funding from South Korea’s science ministry, along with contributions from non-government groups in the United States, France and other countries.

Combining imaging technology and biotechnology, scientists are now able to witness infections as they occur, in real time.

Ulf Nehrbass calls it a "game-changer" for developing new drugs. He is the chief executive officer of the South Korean branch of the 124-year-old Institut Pasteur [IPK].

"We have been, for the first time, able to reconstitute this, to have pathogens in live human cells and we image that. We look at the infection as it happens. That’s entirely new. And so this has allowed us to develop drugs which are effective in a complex, very realistic system," said Nehrbass.

One of the targets is tuberculosis, a disease that has plagued humans since they lived in caves. It remains very difficult to treat. Patients must gobble handfuls of slow-acting and toxic pills for between six months and two years.

Kevin Pethe leads one of the IPK early discovery program groups, which is examining natural compounds and synthetic candidates to find better treatments.

"There are at least 300 or 400 natural compounds that are currently used in the fight against tuberculosis," said Pethe. "So we look at both. So we are very opportunistic."  

Lawrence Ayong from Cameroon leads a team seeking new drugs to battle endemic tropical diseases, such as malaria.

"Then inside the red blood cells you see the yellow color, which indicates the presence of parasites," said Ayong.

One of their biggest frustrations is that dangerous organisms are able to evolve and outwit the drugs designed to kill them.

"Here we are focused in developing innovative approaches that can help limit the spread of these drug-resistant parasites, be it in malaria, in leishmaniasis or chagas," he said.

Ayong has a warning for those in the developed world who believe neglected diseases are of no concern for them.

"With globalization it doesn’t matter where the disease is located. It’s going to affect everybody economically and even socially. So, I think the time is now for all of us to join efforts against all these diseases," said Ayong.

Outside of several U.N.-backed partnerships, the best laboratories in the world are not part of those efforts. They belong to the giant for-profit pharmaceutical companies.

Institut Pasteur Korea CEO Nehrbass said those corporations devote the bulk of their research budgets to finding blockbuster drugs, which could ring up billions of dollars in profits.

"Most of the infectious diseases, even the neglected diseases, do not fall under that category. There is a huge need, however. And I think we need to look at a new model of entities, new platforms that have to develop drugs in these areas, new public-private partnerships," said Nehrbass.

In the current economic climate even the most generous of philanthropists are streamlining contributions. That has researchers nervous that their money could run out before they are able to develop new and effective drugs targeting neglected diseases, a process that can take years, if not decades.


Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steven L Herman is the Voice of America Asia correspondent.

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