Remarks by Dr. Maria Freire, President, Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation
Presented at: “Innovation in Action: Advancing New Tools to Combat Global Health Diseases”
The Global Health Technologies Coalition in cooperation with Senator Patty Murray and The Congressional Biomedical Research Caucus, Russell Senate Office Building, April 21, 2010
It is fitting that we are assembled in this beautiful venue, the Kennedy Caucus Room, named after a man who devoted his life to making research for health a high national priority and whose steadfast commitment to this goal helped make this country the global leader in biomedical research.
Because of U.S. research funding, our nation has outstanding scientists, clinicians and entrepreneurs, all of whom are part of an innovation continuum that is unparalleled around the globe. The results are simply astonishing: In the last two decades or so, we witnessed the sequencing of the human genome, developed antiretroviral treatments that successfully extend life, and produced drugs that can actually turn a cancer like chronic myeloid leukemia from a death sentence into a treatable condition.
In parallel, the world has become smaller – we can communicate instantaneously with people in almost every corner of the world. In doing so, as a society we have been made acutely aware of the health problems around the globe, particularly of diseases that disproportionately affect poor populations. And, as a society, we have come together to do something about this.
Global health is not a subject, it is a verb. It is about taking action.
In little over a decade, a new breed of organizations, the product-development partnerships, or PDPs, have generated over 100 new drug candidates and 39 diagnostic and vector control candidate technologies for neglected and tropical diseases. This is truly remarkable. And, it is not an accident.
This wave of innovation resulted from concerted efforts of scientists, clinicians, public health experts and advocates. They’ve come from academia, industry, civil society, philanthropy and government, from the North and from the South. Against heavy odds, they joined forces, with laser-sharp focus, to develop medicines, vaccines and diagnostics for diseases for which economic incentives were not the drivers.
When I started as CEO of the TB Alliance, our group had 3 people and no drug pipeline. Today, the world has the largest pipeline of TB drugs in history. We are indebted to those inspired leaders at agencies such as USAID and NIH, whose funding has enabled drug candidates to advance into clinical trials. As a consequence of the USAID investment, for example, endemic countries can develop the expertise and infrastructure to conduct basic and clinical research, which will enable them to tackle their enormous health challenges and increase their competitiveness.
Developments such as these are a very good start: they provide hope to millions of sick people and help increase the world’s capacity to tackle global disease. But, alas, this is merely a start.
To be “transformational,” we need to rectify the underfunding of research on health problems for the global poor. We need to embrace the Food and Drug Administration’s regulatory expertise to help register safe and effective medicines, vaccines and diagnostics in countries around the world. And we need to act nimbly and creatively in finding and promoting innovative finance mechanisms to ensure that these life-saving tools reach those who need them.
The United States must be bold and innovative in its approach and ensure that biomedical funding is a strategic, economic, and policy cornerstone. As the leader in biomedical research, our country can spearhead a global movement for increased and sustainable funding for research that will transform the world.
The results of such an enterprise will be measurable: it will promote innovation for medicine, encourage basic, translational and clinical research, and spur economic development. This initiative would also provide an excellent opportunity to enable broad exchange of scientific information and promote education, within, among and between countries. Long term, the investment will reduce the burden of disease locally and globally, and enhance the quality and extend the productive lives of people everywhere.
With this global investment, we can envision a world in which disease and disability are ultimately conquered by the advances and knowledge generated from biomedical research.
Today, more than ever, with competing national and international priorities, we must not waiver from our path – we must deepen our funding of research for health and ensure that it remains not only a national priority, but a global imperative. Millions of lives, our own and those of our neighbors, depend on it.