This month’s issue of the Harvard Medical School magazine has a perfectly nice article describing a recent publication co-authored by some HMS researchers on the Ebola infection pathway. The article, and the discovery, are excellent:
“This research identifies a critical cellular protein that the Ebola virus needs to cause infection and disease,” explained Whelan, who is also co-director of the HMS Program in Virology. “The discovery also improves chances that drugs can be developed that directly combat Ebola infections.” … there are no available vaccines or anti-viral drugs that can fight the infections.
This reflects the conventional wisdom about how drug development works. A laboratory at an institution like Harvard, almost invariably funded by the National Institutes of Health (in this case by a combination of many NIH grants, and a few grants from other governments as well) discover a “promising target”. Big Pharma then swoops in, hires a few of the researchers, and starts in on the massively expensive process of discovering a molecule that exerts the desired effect on the biomolecule, i.e. a drug.
The noteworthy thing, then, is buried near the end of the article:
The team identified a novel small molecule that inhibits Ebola virus entry into cells by more than 99 percent.
The team then used the inhibitor as a probe to investigate the Ebola infection pathway and found that the inhibitor targeted NPC1.
In this case, the publication not only names a target; it also describes a drug that has the right effect and blocks the virus. This is big: independent university research labs, with budgets that are tiny in comparison to the pharmaceutical companies’, can discover a viable drug candidate (now in animal trials). It represents a paradigm shift that leaves Big Pharma with nowhere to stand.
Oh … one more thing (from this article):
…a patent application has been filed covering compositions of compounds and their use to treat Ebola and related infections.
… covering the host factor targets NCP1 and HOPS, and for the two therapeutic leads imipramine and U18666A as treatments for Ebola infection. … Another patent is held by the Whitehead Institute that covers the genetic screening technology platform.
So although the government has been funding this research effort for over 10 years, the positive results are now a monopoly that will enrich a handful of private individuals and organizations. This is particularly egregious in the case of the patent on imipramine, a drug that has been known and approved for other purposes for over 50 years.
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.