A new consortium involving the pharmaceutical industry as well as the contract research, not-for-profit and academic research sectors has been set up to develop effective drugs for two neglected tropical diseases, African sleeping sickness and Leishmaniasis.

The consortium, which has a total budget of €3.6 million over four years, is multinational as well as multilateral, but with a strong Dutch emphasis. The initiative was announced by Top Institute (TI) Pharma, a public-private partnership formed in 2006 by the Netherlands Federation for Innovative Drug Research (FIGON) and committed to enhancing the efficiency of drug discovery and development.

Besides TI Pharma, the partners include Amsterdam’s Royal Tropical Institute (KIT), a not-for-profit organisation working on sustainable development, poverty reduction and health improvement; Mercachem, a privately owned contract research organisation based in Nijmegen, the Netherlands; and VU University Amsterdam, one of the founding partners in TI Pharma.

Also involved are IOTA Pharmaceuticals, a privately owned drug discovery company based in Cambridge, UK and with existing links to VU University Amsterdam; the not-for-profit Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative; Swiss-based pharmaceutical company Nycomed; and Switzerland’s University of Bern.

The consortium will target parasite-specific phosphodiesterase, with the aim of developing and screening drug candidates for African sleeping sickness (human African trypanosomiasis) and Leishmaniasis. As principal investigator Rob Leurs of VU University Amsterdam pointed out, both conditions are prominent on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) list of neglected tropical diseases for which no effective medication is available.

According to recent WHO estimates, some 60 million people are at risk of contracting African sleeping sickness, with around 50,000 to 70,000 new cases arising each year. The disease is found in 36 countries across sub-Saharan Africa and is endemic in south-east Uganda and western Kenya, killing more than 40,000 Africans a year.

Leishmaniasis is present in a number of tropical and sub-tropical countries, from the rainforests of Central and South America to the deserts of Asia and the Middle East. An estimated 350 million people are at risk of contracting the disease, with 1.5 million to 2 million new cases each year. The visceral form of the disease alone is responsible for an estimated 500,000 new cases and 60,000 deaths a year.