How Can “Open Innovation” Support Research On Infectious Diseases?
Contributing to human progress: open innovation for infectious diseases

Finding the right combination of open innovation – that is the free sharing of expertise, knowledge and data – and intellectual property (IP) that may drive private  investments in expensive new technologies, can be a difficult balancing act to attain.

But as the COVID-19 pandemic has underlined, it is more and more critical to etch that golden mean, in order to support successful collaborations between academia, industry and government entities and also make the end products widely accessible and affordable, said speakers at a Geneva Health Forum (GHF) during a session on the potential of Open Innovation to support R&D on infectious diseases on Monday. The forum brought together experts from both private and non-profit sectors.

Kelly Chibale, Neville Isdell Chair in African-centric Drug Discovery, University of Cape Town.

“During the early stages of scientific discoveries, the whole question of IP and data ownership can often become more complex than the actual science itself,” said Benjamin Perry, Senior Discovery Manager at the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDi).

Even though IP and science share an intricate interface, IP remains an important aspect of attracting investments to new pharma ventures in Africa, said Kelly Chibale, the Neville Isdell Chair in African-centric Drug Discovery, University of Cape Town.

“In order to attract development partners, such as pharmaceutical companies for example, it is necessary to ensure the IP is secured because it gives the company the freedom to operate,” he said.

But Chibale also stressed the critical role that the government plays in R&D collaborations, saying that the partnership model that his MRC team uses also involves academia and industry in not-for-profit R&D product development.

In Research on Neglected Diseases IP Disputes Are Muted

At the Geneva-based Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDi), a Geneva-based health non-profit, the focus is on curing diseases that are prevalent among the world’s poorest populations and offer little promise of financial reward to innovators. So it is possible to get a new medicine all the way through the R&D pipeline and into the hands of  patients, without having to debate the issue of  intellectual property position, said Perry.

Benjamin Perry, Senior Discovery Manager at the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDi).

Perry cited a project he runs, where chemistry students in 25 universities in different countries are working on the same project collaboratively, without the need for IP. These institutions include the University of Otago in New Zealand, University of Ghana and the University of Geneva in Switzerland as well as a couple of universities in the UK and the US.

“This has been enabled by the agreement that there will be no IP taken on this,” said Perry.

While some private sector companies still want to claim certain IP rights when they support certain aspects of DNDi’s research, the non-profit has formulas for arranging this, which also ensure up front that patients’ access to the final end-product at an affordable price will be guaranteed.

For its part, the collaboration between the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) with a number of organizations, is now helping advance early stage research on neglected tropical diseases, malaria and TB, through an initiative known as WIPO Research.

“What we do is we connect researchers with company scientists and leading pharmaceutical companies,” explained Charles Randolph, Head of Global Health at WIPO.

The initiative started 10 years ago, with about 30 academic research institutions. The network has  since grown to 150-plus institutions in 43 countries in six continents.

“Why [open innovation and open collaboration] in global health?” asked Thomas Spangenberg, Head, Global Health Drug Discovery at Merck, which co-sponsored the GHF session.

By dedicating resources to open research into neglected areas of infectious disease research, pharma companies fulfill an important corporate responsibility, he said.

“We believe that innovation occurs at the scientific interface. By collaborating, we can pull resources and make the model more sustainable,” he said.

Image Credits: Geneva Health Forum.

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