In 1990 a drug called eflornithine came on the market to treat African sleeping sickness. But a drug marketed to impoverished Africans would never turn a profit, so in 2000 it was adapted for another, less urgent, use—removing facial hair. Then, said Michele Barry, M.D., HS ’77, an international campaign by groups such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) shamed the drug company into restoring the drug’s original mission of treating sleeping sickness.
Only 10 percent of worldwide biomedical research spending is devoted to diseases that afflict 90 percent of the world’s people, Barry told a March meeting of the Justice and the Allocation of Health Care group, a seminar series organized by the Interdisciplinary Bioethics Project. Barry, a professor of medicine and public health and director of the Office of International Health, says MSF has formed an international partnership to develop medicine for three very neglected diseases that infect millions of people around the world—Chagas disease, African sleeping sickness and leishmaniasis. The partnership, the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative, hopes to have as many as seven drugs available within 12 years. Barry, president of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, has coordinated her society’s cooperation toward achieving this goal.