Major Pharmaceutical Companies Have Ignored Microbicide Development That Could ‘Save Thousands,’ Commentary Says
Researchers have identified almost 60 microbicides, topical ointments and gels that could be used to prevent the spread of HIV and other STDs such as chlamydia and herpes, but interest in the research, which short of a vaccine "could be our best hope for preventing HIV infection," has been lacking on the part of the major pharmaceutical companies because "[t]here's simply no money in it for them," science and technology reporter Paul Raeburn writes in a Business Week commentary piece. Microbicides could be cheap enough to sell in developing countries and safe enough to sell without a prescription, but have been "shunned" by drug makers. Raeburn writes that drug companies "are not going to spend millions of dollars on the large-scale clinical trials ... required by the FDA to produce an ointment that sells for a few dollars." Stephen Schondelmeyer, a pharmacist and economist at the University of Minnesota, said he was "not aware of a big pharmaceutical company ever searching for a new drug they're going to introduce over-the-counter." According to the Alliance for Microbicide Development, 38 biotech companies, 28 not-for-profit groups and six public agencies are investigating microbicides, and Phase III clinical trials should begin soon on the three "most promising compounds." The studies will evaluate the compounds' efficacy and "acceptability" and will include "consumer education" as part of the compounds' development. However, it will be "at least" two years before any compound trials are completed.
Closing the Funding Gap
The lack of interest from the major drug manufacturers has left a funding gap in research, Raeburn writes. Currently, the bulk of funds for microbicide research comes from NIH -- nearly $25 million per year -- and the Global Microbicide Project, which was established with a $25 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. However, more money is needed to bring the microbicides to market, Raeburn writes. Health advocates have asked NIH to triple the current budget for research to $75 million per year. "The Bush White House, despite its wariness of government intervention in the market, should support the hike," Raeburn concludes, adding that because a vaccine for HIV "could still be years away," microbicides "could save tens of thousands of lives" (Raeburn, Business Week, 6/4).