By Malorye A. Branca
October 15, 2003 | Alex Matter, who led development of Novartis’ breakthrough cancer drug Gleevec, has been named director of the pharmaceutical giant’s new Institute for Tropical Diseases (NITD) in Singapore. Matter recently retired as worldwide head of the company’s oncology research and the Novartis Institute for Biomedical Research, formerly based in Basel, Switzerland.
“This connects in many ways to what I was doing previously,” Matter says. Drug discovery has experienced “a convergence of concepts and technology approaches. Everything is based on the genome, and the methodologies can be used successfully in one area or another.”
The NITD was formed in 2001 through collaboration between Novartis and the Singapore government. Based at the Capricorn Research Center in Singapore, the institute hosts more than 70 scientists seeking novel treatments and preventive measures for major tropical diseases. The primary targets are dengue fever and drug-resistant tuberculosis, which afflict more than 200 million people worldwide annually. Treatments discovered at NITD will be made available affordably to poor nations.
The major reason that drugs have not successfully been developed against dengue and tuberculosis is economics. Most of the patients are very poor, so there is little profit motive for drug developers. The scientific challenges, however, are standard. “You need the right targets that are causally related to the disease,” Matter says. He believes Novartis’ strength in areas such as kinase and protease inhibitors and antibody development will help. He also plans to exploit his extensive network of academic contacts.
Besides his work on Gleevec, Matter has also led programs in anti-infective and HIV/AIDS drug development. “AIDS was a fantastic lesson in many ways,” he says. “We learned how to develop drugs for a disease that had no animal model for efficacy testing, the importance of biomarkers, that you could register and approve drugs more rapidly, and the value of the Web to patients.”
Matter’s appointment coincides with the World Trade Organization’s recent agreement allowing poor countries to import cheap versions of patented drugs for major diseases, such as AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis (see “Cheap Drugs for Poor Countries”). “This type of arrangement will certainly help,” Matter says. “But it is not sufficient to simply ship tons of drugs into some harbor of a developing country.” He again points to the lesson of AIDS, showing the importance of education and proper storage and distribution of drugs.
Alexander Kamb will succeed Matter as head of Novartis’ oncology program. Kamb was the chief scientist at Myriad Genetics, which identified the BRCA1 gene, and he also founded Arcaris.
Novartis faces a unique challenge, Kamb says, “partly based on its own success.” One key question looming is how many cancers Gleevec can treat. But additional molecules will undoubtedly also be needed.
“It’s sort of like a supertanker,” Kamb says about his new department. “When we start steering the ship in a different direction, it sometimes takes a while to see the change.”
Sidebar: Cheap Drugs for Poor Countries
It took an emotional, last-minute plea from desperate African leaders, but the World Trade Organization finally reached an agreement to allow poor countries easier access to cheap versions of certain drugs.
“The decision is final, in that a waiver has been established,” a WTO spokesman said. He added that during their meeting in Cancun in September, WTO officials would “simply welcome the decision.” The waiver allows nations exporting generic drugs to bypass patent regulations and issue a “compulsory license” for certain drugs headed for poor nations fighting major epidemics.
The major opposition to the agreement came from the United States, concerned that the deal would open a floodgate of generic drugs from countries such as India and Brazil. Without proper controls, manufacturers could make copies of all kinds of drugs and distribute them widely.
Under the current agreement, some provisions are made to protect against this. Different packaging, for example, will be used to distinguish the generics produced under the waiver. However, according to the WTO spokesman, “The idea is that the waiver will be implemented in good faith and not used frivolously.”
The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America applauded the deal, saying the text of the agreement “will ensure the system will not be abused.”
While representatives of poor countries to the WTO generally approved of the agreement, some human rights groups said it did not go far enough to have a major impact.
The WTO’s annual ministerial meeting took place in Cancun, Mexico from September 10-14.