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Tag Archives: McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health

Friday Science Review: December 17, 2010

I’ll begin the FSR this week with a few comments regarding some investigational work coming from the McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health.   Professors Dr. Peter Singer and Dr. Abdallah Daar, and PhD student Ken Simiyu, traveled to Africa to better understand why commercialization in the biotechnology and healthcare industry has been so poor of late.

Stagnant Technologies Need Stimulus

University of Toronto ♦ Published in Science, Dec. 10, 2010

After visiting some 23 academic institutions in six countries and interviewing 39 scientists, researchers have dug up some of the underlying issues preventing Africa’s biotechnological innovations from migrating to commercial success. Although previous studies in Africa have analyzed health innovation at the country level there has never been a systematic evaluation highlighting the troubles of specific technologies. Some of the technologies identified in the study include traditional plant products, new chemical entities, diagnostics, vaccines, and medical devices. In their travels the group came across some very interesting technologies indeed; researchers at the University of Ghana are developing a visually readable point of care diagnostic that uses monoclonal antibodies to detect the malaria parasite in urine; other work from Tanzania’s National Institute for Medical Research is being invested in the development of novel extraction techniques, specifically those to extract and purify artemisinin from the plant Artemisia annua for the preparation of derivatives to fight artemisinin resistance in malarial therapy. So why aren’t these technologies making a move towards market? A number of reasons. The mindsets of many researchers interviewed were simply not commercially oriented, with most scientists focusing on teaching and publishing to disseminate knowledge. Finding funding for validation studies of early stage technologies is another issue. African scientists need support from institutional investors but there are very few African funds in existence that support the biotechnology and healthcare space. Other issues identified by interviewees included a lack of commercially oriented government policy, poorly understood intellectual property regimes, and regulatory red tape. Peter Singer previously identified three areas that would help spur technology development in Africa: proof-of-concept funds, networks to link scientists and entrepreneurs together, and innovation centres that provide shared research infrastructure. Some have proposed establishing ‘Life Sciences Innovation Centres’ throughout Africa. These would serve a similar purpose as MaRS, here in Toronto, and the newly proposed Clerk-Maxwell Centres in the UK, with the goal of uniting researchers, industry, and entrepreneurs to accelerate commercial development of life science assets. This integrative approach is catching on, and could be the ingredient that will remedy the static nature of Africa’s commercial environment in the life sciences sector.

RD3 at the Root of Congenital Blindness

University of British Columbia ♦ Published in PNAS, Dec. 7, 2010

The protein RD3, previously of unknown function, has been implicated in the development of Leber Congenital Amaurosis Type 12 (LCA12). The disease is characterized by rapid degeneration of the photoreceptor cells during fetal development leading to blindness at birth or in the first year of life. Dr. Robert Molday and his team at the Centre for Macular Research show that RD3 interacts with two different forms of guanylate cyclase, GC1 and GC2, mediating their export from the endoplasmic reticulum. GC1 and GC2 are essential for the production of cGMP — a secondary messenger of phototransduction — and in their absence cGMP production is impaired. Dr. Molday believes that LCA12 may be caused by cGMP deficiency which leads to constitutive closure of cGMP gated calcium channels. Proper gradients of calcium across the membranes of photoreceptor cells is likely required for their long-term survival.

New Target for Chronic Pain Unveiled

University of Toronto ♦ Published in Science, Dec. 3, 2010

Synaptic plasticity is the ability of neural connections to vary in strength based on the extent of use or disuse of a neural pathway. This characteristic of the nervous system is key to the process of learning and memorizing sensory experiences, and it is also believed to play a role in pathological pain. Most researchers have focused on proteins that lead to synaptic plasticity as opposed to those that maintain synaptic plasticity over the long-term. A new study led by Dr. Min Zhuo implicates protein kinase M zeta (PKMξ) in the maintenance of chronic pain. Peripheral damage in a mouse model upregulated PKMξ in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region of the brain known to be involved in the onset of chronic pain. Zhou went on to show that microinjections of a PKMξ inhibitory peptide ZIP into the anterior cingulate cortex dampened synaptic potentiation and behavioural sensitization. This research uncovers an excellent target for chronic pain.

Friday Science Review: October 8, 2010

This week I’ll take the opportunity to discuss a Nature Biotechnology commentary that has generated a little buzz in the health-biotech community, in addition to a recent publication in Science that is particularly impressive.

Making the Invisible “Visible”: The elucidation of protein structure is essential for our understanding of protein function. Despite having sound methods for the determination of protein structure in the native folded state, thus far it has been particularly challenging to determine the structure of transient intermediates along the protein folding pathway. Now researchers have developed a protocol combining a unique form of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) with chemical shift-based methodology (CS-Rosetta) allowing for structural determination of “invisible” metastable intermediates. These rare conformational states form rapidly and last only for microseconds before folding to the native state. The methodology, published in Science, can also be used for the determination of excited states crucial to function, for example enzyme catalysis and ligand bonding, and is expected to provide a wealth of data on conformational states that so far have proven highly elusive. The study was led by Dr. Lewis Kay of the Department of Molecular Genetics at the University of Toronto.

A fine balance

Peter A. Singer and Rahim Rezaie, both of the McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health at the University of Toronto, bring an interesting debate to the table in a recent Nature Biotechnology commentary:

“As health biotech enterprises in emerging economies move from imitation to innovation, will they become less relevant to local global health priorities?”

Countries such as China, India, and Brazil have played a pivotal role in supporting local and global health priorities through the production of low-cost health products. Now it seems we may begin to see more and more integration of health-biotech companies in the developing world into the global product development value-chain. The concern, however, is that a movement towards more costly innovative products and lucrative markets may lead to the neglect of poorer market segments that health-biotech firms in the developing world have traditionally focused on. Rezaie and Singer pose an eloquent question:

“ enterprises in the emerging markets take on more costly innovative projects, would they be compelled to choose between global health and global wealth?”

A force driving integration is the exchange of service-provision arrangements between health-biotech enterprises in emerging economies and large multinational pharmaceutical companies (MNCs). For example, China’s Wuxi PharmaTech and India’s Advinus Therapeutics have entered service-provision arrangements with MNCs. The movement is further supported by an increase in collaborative development between firms in developing countries and MNCs, as they work together to produce innovative health products.

Despite the “innovative” interests of health-biotech firms in emerging economies, data suggests the priorities of global health may continue to be met. Growth in pharmaceutical markets in emerging economies has risen sharply over the last several years. India and Brazil have seen average annual growth rates of 10% in their pharma markets, and China even greater at 21%, suggesting the interests of MNCs may be shifting from developed to developing markets. Hence, the global integration of health-biotech firms operating in the developing world may in part be balanced by the evolving mindset of multinationals towards less developed markets.

Rezaie and Singer believe that the objectives of global health and global wealth can be satisfied simultaneously. Providing the proper support mechanisms are put in place, they argue, development of health products for poor market segments can be secured. An interesting instrument discussed is an orphan drug-like legislation plan for emerging economies, where the intended purpose is to incentivize products for diseases of the poor rather than diseases of low prevalence. The Global Health Accelerator platform, health funds directed at emerging economies (see NY-based Acumen Fund, Ventureast Biotechnology Fund in India, Bioveda China Fund, among others), and tactics such as public-private partnerships, advance market commitments, and patent pools to share intellectual property are also posed as mechanisms for bolstering interest and investment in global health challenges.

This article, published in Nature, is well worth a read for any interested in the evolving trajectories of the healthcare and biotech sectors, and the implications these changes will have on global health.

Friday Science Review: May 21, 2010

A slightly different FSR this week with a spotlight on Global Health, right on the heels of the recent Grand Challenges Canada announcement.  An interesting report in Nature Biotechnology, led by Drs. Abdallah Daar and Peter Singer at the McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health, mapped the collaborations between health biotech companies in developing countries.  The study is a first for tracking “South-South” partnerships and they offer some interesting insights:

South-South collaborations have become a widely chosen path for health biotech companies:

  • About a quarter (27%), participate in collaborations with another developing country and many (21%) are involved in multiple initiatives.
  • South-North collaborations with developed countries are still more common (53%).
  • The most active countries with the highest percentage of firms engaged in South-South collaborations are Cuba (~75%) and South Africa (~45%), followed by Egypt, Brazil, India, and China.
  • These leading developing countries in health biotech make up the majority of the linkages (see figure below)
  • Many of the collaborations are within their own regions such that they are establishing free trade zones to encourage trade with one another.

South-South Collaboration Network

Some of the motivations for companies in developing to collaborate include:

  • Minimizing risk and cost by sharing the burden with a partner.
  • Expanding their potential markets with an easier or facilitated access to a foreign market.
  • Gaining specific knowledge or skills, particularly since there are many specialized skills and technologies involved in biotech research that may not be available locally.

The nature of the collaborations, however, is mainly end-stage commercialization agreements rather than R&D.

  • Distribution agreements (72%) and marketing activities (34%) account for the majority of the collaborations with only 13% involving R&D and 9% involving clinical trials activities.
  • Innovation based knowledge sharing would likely have greater long-term benefits and future policies should encourage more of these types of collaborations.

To further promote such initiatives, Government organizations and other third parties can, and should, play a larger role to cultivate joint ventures since the majority of the South-South collaborations were initiated by the participating companies themselves.  It is important to realize that  South-South collaborations in the biotech sector are just as valuable as North-South collaborations to sustain a growing culture that addresses global health issues.

Also note that this study follows a pair of Nature Biotechnology publications last year by the same group at MRC – one explores “South-North” health biotech collaborations and the other focuses on Canadian biotech collaborations with developing countries.

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Grand Challenges Canada to Mobilize $225 Million Over 5 Years For Global Health

A new nonprofit organization called Grand Challenges Canada has been formed to deploy the Canadian government’s $225 million Development Innovation Fund. In a fabulous marriage of theory and practice, Grand Challenges will be run by Peter Singer, who is also the Director of the McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health. It also draws on an impressive international scientific advisory board.

The program will identify and launch five “grand challenges” over a 5-year period. The first is

“to create a new class of point-of-care (POC) diagnostics that will be easy to use, low cost, multiplexed and able to assess disease stage and provide information on prognosis.”

Information on the RFP, policies and forms to apply for funding are here, and the deadline for this round of applications is July 12, 2010 at 11:59 pm EST.

Grand Challenges Canada is independent, but is being run in partnership with International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health and with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Trends Update — IP Constituencies: Amylin Partners with Biocon, PerkinElmer Buys Access and Capacity in India and China

world_map_2002Following up on Sunday’s post noting the new survey of Canadian biotech collaborations with companies in the developing world, it’s worth paying attention to two U.S. deals from last week that emphasize the growing role of India and China in the drug development process:

  • Amylin Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (Nasdaq: AMLN) and Biocon Limited (NSE: BIOCONagreed to jointly develop, commercialize and manufacture a novel peptide therapeutic for the potential treatment of diabetes, and will share development costs; and
  • PerkinElmer did one deal each in China and India:
    • In China, they paid over $60 million for SYM-BIO Lifescience, a Shanghai, China-based diagnostics firm that will double its access to hospitals in China and provide it with “substantial” manufacturing plant capacity
    • In India, they picked up the genetic screening business of Surendra Genetic Labs, a lab in Chennai, India, that provides fetal, maternal, and newborn screening.

The McLaughlin-Rotman survey distinguishes (usefully) between R&D collaborations and marketing and distribution activities.  Although Ellen Licking wonders whether “cheaper off-shore manufacturing [is] a reason for the deal,” Amylin is clearly focused on Biocon’s R&D capabilities.  The press release quotes Amylin CEO Daniel M. Bradbury praising Biocon as a “biologics innovator.”

Even if not all transactions in India and China are innovation-centric (cf the PerkinElmer deals), all involvement by innovative companies shifts the incentives of China, India and other participating countries towards a more innovation-friendly IP regime.

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Trends Update — IP Constituencies: Rotman Article Explores Canadian Biotech Collaborations with Developing Countries

A very interesting article in Nature Biotechnology from a group at the McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health provides some empirical support for a trend we’ve been following of increased innovative activity in developing countries

According to the article, over 25% of Canadian biotechs collaborate with developing countries.  Of these, however, the vast majority of companies do so alongside collaborations with other developed country partners — only 4% collaborate exclusively with developing countries.  Also, gaining access to developing countries’ markets is the most frequent (66%) reason cited for collaboration.

Still, some of the data reflects the growing importance of developing country collaboration (China and India in particular):

  • Canadian firms’ collaborations with India (17) and China (22) nearly equal the number of collaborations with Japan (18) and Germany (23); and
  • Accessing knowledge from developing countries’ partners (24%) is approaching providing knowledge to developing countries’ partners (37%) as a reason for collaboration.

How do these collaborations look overall?

Collaborations article - nbt0909-806-F4

The figure from the paper on the left shows the geography of, and rationale for, the collaborations. Part “a” shows marketing and distribution collaborations, and part “b” shows those involving an R&D component.


What is the effect of all this activity?

Well, it’s hard to quantify, but the authors review revenue data from public company respondents and find that:

“average total revenues of firms that have North–South collaborations are nearly four times higher than firms that do not have such partnerships.” 

My bottom line: causal or not, that’s a correlation that should cause all biotech companies to take note.

Friday Science Review: If you want to…

If you want to avoid malaria:  Two PLoS ONE publications by teams in Dr. Kain’s lab at the McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health illuminate malaria: one by suggesting that inflammatory peptide C5a may contribute to the pathogenesis of Placental Malaria; and one showing that serum levels of angiopoietin-1 and the angiopoietin-2/1 ratio are promising clinically informative biomarkers for Cerebral Malaria.

If you want to understand schizophrenia: try gender studies? Researchers at Fernand-Seguin Research Centre of Louis-H. Lafontaine Hospital studied cerebral activation in people with schizophrenia in terms of emotional processing and cognitive analysis. They show that men with schizophrenia performing the tests display cerebral activation similar to that of healthy women performing the same tests, and vice versa.

If you want to teach the world to sing: head to The University of Prince Edward Island.  UPEI received a 7 year, $2.5 million grant to take a multidisciplinary, international approach to the study of singing.  The grant will fund approaches from the point of view of music cognition, neuroscience, and cultural anthropology, and will look at such questions as the nature of singing, how to teach it better, and its health benefits.

If you want to be three times more likely to meet fitness guidelines: take the subway.*

* I know, I know.  I implied a causal relationship.  So sue me.

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