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Pop!Tech – Victoria Hale and nonprofit drug companies

Dr. Victoria Hale is one of the founders of the US’s first non-profit drug company, One World Health. Her work focuses on diseases you’ve probably never heard of in places you’ve never been.

The first disease her firm focused on was Kala-azar, or black fever, or Leishmaniasis. It’s a parasitic disease that affects the desperately poor, some of the poorest people in the world. The parasite is spread by sandflies, and affects bone marrow, supressing white blood cell production. It presents in ways similar to anemia and HIV. It’s cureable, but the established treatment costs $300, which isn’t possible for families that earn under $1 a day.

Her firm is now running clinical trials in the Bihar state of India using Paromomycin, an antibiotic that had been heavily used the middle of last century, but became less popular when it went off patent and because it’s injectable, not oral. But it’s quite effective, and the medicine is now being tested in India, Bangladesh, Sudan, Brazil and Nepal. It’s manufactured by a firm in Hyderabad that specializes in producing generic medicines.

Geting this drug into trials and approval is part of a proof of concept for One World Health. Hale wants to demonstrate the possibility of drug discovery, clinical trials and manufacturing on a non-profit basis, not the traditional for-profit basis, supported by philanthropic money not by venture capital. She points out that generic medicine manufacturers can produce a known compound, but they don’t test the safety of compounds and get drugs approved. But the success of their Kala-azar cure – which costs $10, not $300 – is strong evidence that you can develop a nonprofit pharma company… or perhaps a nonprofit company in any industry.

Hale’s personal path to this work came from working for the FDA, then working for cancer drug firm Genentech. At some point, she was disturbed that the medicines she was working on were useful to fewer and fewer people because they were so expensive. Now her focus is on drugs that are cheap enough to address hugely widespread diseases like malaria and cholera.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is funding her work on malaria, and has committed to elimination of malaria worldwide, a huge and astounding task. “It’s not just global health and making new medicines. It’s clean water, education, women’s rights.” The problem isn’t just health – it’s poverty, and we’ve got to focus on all these priorities. She closes by quoting the late Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop: “There is no more powerful institution in society than business. It is more important than ever before for business to assume moral leadership in society.” Hale wants to see pharma businesses doing what the employees within them want them to do – making people well.

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