With ten years of experience in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, Victoria Hale was looking for a new way to use her skills when, in 2000, she attended a meeting on neglected diseases in Antwerp, Belgium. After listening to a physician from Bihar, India, describe the needs of his patients with visceral leishmaniasis, she wanted to
know more, and asked to visit him and meet some of his patients.
“There was no place for a westerner, particularly a single woman, to stay. So I stayed in the family home of the physician who took me to visit,” says Hale. “I was overwhelmed. I had looked at pictures and done a lot of reading and talked to a lot of people, but it is not the same as being there. Once you see the level of poverty and the number of basic needs that are unmet, and how just being able to provide a cure for one disease can impact a family, you just don’t want to go back to another western medicine, another me-too type of medicine. There is so much work to be done.”
It was then that Hale’s vision crystallised. She and her husband, Ahvie Herskowitz, had already had the idea of creating a non-profit pharmaceutical company, one that would develop drugs for the poorest people in the world. Hale had written a business plan, and had mounting support from colleagues interested in helping. But, she says, “It wasn’t until [I] made that trip that I really committed to doing it.”
Hale founded the Institute for OneWorld Health in July 2000, and immediately started looking for projects and funding. Having worked at the US Food and Drug Administration reviewing applications for new drug approvals, she knew that many promising medicines are dropped midway through the development process because the project becomes too expensive or the company changes direction. This is especially true of drugs aimed at treating the diseases affecting poor countries: many of these medicines offer companies little hope of recouping the money it takes to bring them to market.
As Hale reasoned that most people who work in the pharmaceutical industry do so for altruistic reasons, she thought she would be able to gain access to these partially developed drugs. Aided by a highly trained team of drug development and regulatory specialists, OneWorld Health would be able to complete the process and take such drugs to market with relatively small investments.
Her plan seems to be working. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has provided $120m since 2002. Along with a number of scientists, including the Indian physician who first welcomed her to his family home, Hale has led the trials necessary to prove that an inexpensive off-patent drug, paromomycin, is effective in treating visceral leishmaniasis. OneWorld Health will apply for regulatory approval for the drug with the Indian government early next year, and plans to begin a disease-elimination programme in 2006 or 2007.
Paromomycin and visceral leishmaniasis are only the starting point. What the project proves is that non-profit pharmaceutical companies are viable as businesses. And with that first success, Hale has been able to attract more financial donors and potential drugs.
“I didn’t imagine it would be such a spiritual journey,” she says. “It is much more than a start-up or a job. It has caught on and become a movement, and people have looked to us for inspiration and guidance.”
Walking into the San Francisco offices of the Institute for OneWorld Health (which now employs close to a hundred staff), you will see little evidence that it is a pharmaceutical company. There is plenty of evidence, however, that OneWorld’s goals are more than local. Four metal clocks hang on the wall above the receptionist’s desk, tracking the time in San Francisco, New York, London and New Delhi. And there are pictures of children, mothers and families.
“We try to put a more human face on this, to reach through and engage individual people within the pharmaceutical industry. And to remember that we are here as individuals to help individuals,” says Hale.