A meeting to discuss drug discovery for neglected tropical diseases

On a warm May day in London, I attended my first meeting organized by the International Society of Neglected Tropical Diseases. Quite honestly, I knew precious little about this society until recently. But a short web search will inform that this group does great work to bring attention to science, socioeconomics and logistics associated with neglected tropical diseases.

The meeting was opened by none other than Prof. Jeremy Farrar, the recently appointed Director of the Wellcome Trust. There were also representatives from academia, pharma and non-profit organizations. An impressive attendance list, to be sure. Herein, I will summarize a few highlights gleaned at this meeting. The summary is spotty. But I didn’t take notes and have set a time limit on myself for posting it. People, facts, announcements and moments omitted are no less important or interesting than those mentioned (accurately or otherwise).

Wim Parys, the Head of R&D at Janssen, described his company’s efforts in global health research. Janssen has a group dedicated to this endeavor. The success story that is bedaquiline was mentioned, of course. Dr. Parys also talked about need for incentives to de-risk the investment of for-profit companies. This is an important perspective because most of us assume that profitable companies have a responsibility to give back. But it’s not that simple because drugs for neglected diseases are not easier, cheaper or less risky to develop.

Lluis Ballell-Pages, representing GSK Tres Cantos, talked about his company’s contributions to malaria and neglected tropical diseases, including the Tres Cantos Open Lab. Happy to hear that Wellcome is partnering with GSK on this.

Alan Fairlamb, a highly distinguished of parasitologists, described the organization and operations of Dundee’s Drug Discovery Unit. He also publicly announced their discovery of DDU107498 , a kinase inhibitor with sub-nanomolar EC50 with very promising drug-like properties. No doubt, we will hear more.

John Overington gave an overview of ChEMBL. Those of us who use this resource daily are happy to hear that its funding has been renewed till 2019.

Michael Pollastri, a med chem prof come data curator, came to talk not about chemistry but about his initiative to develop a new tool for sharing of scientific data, particularly for NTDs. This is worth checking out because academic scientists need to embrace more advanced collaborative tools.

Paul Willis, Director of Drug Discovery R&D at Medicine for Malaria Venture, talked about MMV’s work and progress in managing and coordinating discovery and development of next generation anti-malarials. They funded and oversaw screening of > 6M compounds against Plasmodium parasites in various labs. This resulted in identification of > 25k hits (EC50 ≤ 1 µM), 19k of which are published in public databases including CHeMBL. To help researchers, they distilled the hits collection down to 400 compounds — also known as the Malaria Box. This is being used by scientists all over the world for lead optimization, target identification and also screening other parasites. Good news — the success of the Malaria Box is leading to a sequel. The Pathogen Box is now being planned. MMV is taking suggestions for what to include in this second collection of 400 compounds.

Both Jean-Francois Alesandrini and Charles Mowbray spoke on behalf of DNDi, and gave a promising oversight of what is in the pipeline for malaria, kinetoplastid diseases and filarial diseases.

Representing SGC, I gave a talk not about structures of parasite proteins but about my organization’s open access model. Showing off a litany of accomplishments, I highlighted two: (1) We publish methods and materials on our website, as well as the distribution of reagents. (2) We send DNA, protein samples, cell lines and compounds to interested parties on an almost weekly basis.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this meeting, to me personally, is the embracing of open source/open access by most parties. Sure, patents are important. Sure, scientists need to protect their data before publishing. But there was will, almost eagerness to embrace sharing of data. Very good sign!